The City of New Westminster is putting some projects on hold because of staffing vacancies and absences that have left it "deeply short-staffed."
A report and memos presented to city council this week paint a not-so-pretty picture about the staffing challenges being faced by the City of New Westminster. While some departments are changing up their work plans to address staffing issues, the city plans to minimize impacts to core services as much as possible.
“COVID has created many impacts in the community and within the organization,” chief administrative officer Lisa Spitale said in a report to council. “Several city departments are facing higher than anticipated staff vacancies due to retirements, departures and a corresponding challenge with staff recruitment.”
Parks and Rec
The parks and recreation department is finding that its response times to some service requests are slower than normal because of challenges in recruiting and retaining staff, as well as higher rates of absenteeism in some areas of its operations.
Backlogs in routine and preventative maintenance work, fewer community recreation program offerings and the potential for reduced operating hours at recreation facilities are among the impacts resulting from staffing challenges.
In a staff memo, Dean Gibson, director of parks and recreation, said extraordinary pressures have been placed on the pool of auxiliary staff, to the extent that there are now very few qualified staff to call upon for work, and interest from applicants is at an all-time low. Aquatics staff and horticulture services are two of the areas struggling with staffing issues.
As a result, residents may notice that some parks and public spaces appear less manicured than usual. Residents may notice that some lower-priority maintenance work may be delayed and seasonal plantings may not be changed over as quickly as in the past.
Climate Action, Planning and Development
The climate action, planning and development department is reporting “a significant” staff resource challenge at this time, with the overall department averaging a 67 per cent reduced capacity.
“This includes a significant number of vacant positions in each of the department’s divisions/sections,” said a memo written by director Emilie Adin and senior manager Jackie Teed.
According to the memo, the city’s response to the pandemic, the department’s role in helping the city respond to ongoing regional crises such as the heat dome, the opioid crisis and the affordable housing crises, as well as a “pent up development demand” have resulted in a “significant backlog” of development and building permit files.
“It is difficult to address this backlog with current resources. New development applications and inquiries are received daily,” said the memo. “The growing backlog and timelines are resulting in long review timelines, and understandable frustration from applicants.”
In response to the staffing challenges, the climate action, planning and development division is placing a variety of items in its 2022 work plan on hold. This includes planning work on the 22nd Street SkyTrain station bold vision and Phase 2 of the infill housing initiatives for triplexes and duplexes, as well as the refresh of the city’s Heritage Revitalization Agreement policy and various bylaw updates (such as updates to the smoking bylaw).
The climate action, development and planning department states that the city’s need to address ongoing and new crises, such as the Ukrainian crisis response and the downtown livability strategy, is limiting its staff’s ability to achieve items included in the 2022 work plan. Given the difficulty in retaining and recruiting qualified staff, the department has explored the idea of “buying our way out” of the issue in the shorter term by engaging consultants in areas such as development planning.
“Staff have made inquiries with qualified consultants who appear to be largely uninterested in doing this type of work or who would be charging the city prices that are well outside what one could support in a public services context,” said the memo.
A similar story is being told in the engineering department, where engineering director Lisa Leblanc reports that “escalating staff recruitment and retention” challenges have resulted in customer service impacts, including long delays in addressing requests and questions, project delays and risk to project quality and budget, and impacts to staff well-being.
“At this time, there are 23 active recruitments occurring within engineering,” she wrote in a memo about staffing issues. “The vacancies are impacting our ability to deliver core services in a safe, efficient and reliable manner, and to deliver the city’s ambitious strategic plan and climate action bold steps, particularly as it relates to sustainable transportation.”
According to Leblanc, engineering operations currently has 16 vacant, full-time positions, in addition to the regular turnover of multiple auxiliary positions. Some of the most significant challenges relate to: downtown cleanliness and oversight of the portable toilet in Hyack Square; missed waste collection and delays in responding; delays in inspections and minor repairs to sidewalks; fewer patrols by parking and animal services; and delays in responding to parking complaints.
Other impacts include the need to contract out for more water/sewer jobs, as well as repairs for the city’s fleet, which results in higher costs. Staffing challenges could also result in reduced maintenance to parks (such as longer grass), sports fields and the cemetery.
As a result of vacancies, the engineering department is delaying a number of projects until later in 2022 or 2023. These include construction of the Crosstown Greenway between Eighth and Fifth streets, the Queensborough transportation plan and interim implementation of the Downtown Transportation Plan.
New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services
Erin Williams, acting fire chief, outlined a number of staffing challenges in the fire department, which has seen an increased demand in some areas, such as its emergency management division and its life safety and public education division. In addition, the management team, which normally consists of a fire chief, deputy chief and four assistant deputy chiefs, is shortstaffed.
“Currently, the fire chief (temporarily filled with an acting chief) and deputy fire chief positions are vacant and one position is on leave,” he wrote. “This leaves three chief officers to fill roles and responsibilities normally supported by six. In order to maintain business continuity, portfolios have been reassigned and prioritized based on operational need.”
Human Resources and Information Technology
Eva Yip, acting director of human resources and information technology, said there has been an increase in the volume of recruitment due to an “unprecedented wave” of voluntary attrition. Despite the best efforts of staff, she said this has resulted in a number of key functions being delayed, including recruitment and hiring, learning and development, computer hardware replacements and software upgrades.
“The increased workload and competing work-life demands during the pandemic are also impacting staff well-being,” Yip said in her memo.
Coun. Nadine Nakagawa thanked staff for the reports, saying they provide council and residents with a clear picture of what is happening in terms of staffing.
“It’s so disappointing to see the projects that will be put on hold for now, but we have to realistic about it, that people are tired in all the ways. We are deeply short-staffed. It is hard to do recruitment. We are struggling even to do the day-to-day business of the city,” she said. “I just think we have to talk about this loudly and clearly to members of the community, so they can understand if they are not receiving a really detailed response back, if they are not getting an immediate response on issues, there is really good reasons why.”
Nakagawa encourages community members to be patient with city staff and to understand why they may not be able to respond in ways they might have in the past or in the way citizens would like.
“The emails keep pouring in, the work keeps pouring in, council keeps asking more and more and more, and I think we all need to really, really support city staff in what needs to be done in this difficult time. … We would like to do everything and we would like to do it all fantastically and abundantly, and that’s not the situation that we are in right now,” she said.
New Westminster isn’t alone in having challenges on the staffing front, Nakagawa said.
“I just saw a press conference today with the Minister of Health talking about shortages in health care, which is obviously deeply troubling and dire. BC Ferries has been cancelling sailings. This is not unique to the city,” she said Monday. “But I think it’s really important that we start to talk about this issue publicly because I think we have been doing a good job on public engagement and improving public engagement, and this sort of goes against what it was that we were trying to achieve there, which is related to response time and things like that. I also want our staff to know that council has heard this and are concerned about this and will do what we can to support.”