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Essex Council Strategy Meeting highlights Current State Assessment Report

by Sylene Argent

On Tuesday, October 13, Essex Council hosted a special meeting online that highlighted the Current State Assessment Report in regards to a recent review of the Town’s service delivery.

  Council ultimately received the report, and held a second meeting, on Monday, October 19, to provide more feedback.

  Chris Nepszy, CAO, said the meeting with StrategyCorp was the first phase of the Town’s service delivery review. He said the review was conducted as part of the Province’s Municipal Modernization Program.

  At the Monday, March 16 regular meeting, Council appointed StrategyCorp to provide consulting services to create an Internal and Shared Service Delivery Review for the Town of Essex.

  StrategyCorp’s proposal of fees for consulting services for the Essex Internal and Shared Delivery Review was $140,786.75, which was within the successful Provincial grant awarded of $200,000.

  “The review they have taken on over the past several months, really focuses on identifying opportunities to modernize and share delivery processes and procedure; not just internally, but externally,” Nepszy said, adding the project falls inline with the Town’s commitment to improve services for residents.

  The first phase of the review focused on the development of the Current State Assessment Report, Nepszy said. As part of the review, StrategyCorp looked at the Town’s population stats, financing, debt levels, staffing levels, and looked at possible opportunities, weakness, strengths, and threats.

  “From that, they look to build a thorough understanding of the Town’s municipal services and delivery model,” Nepszy said. The initial report, he added, was completed with interviews with Councillors and Town staff members at all levels.

  He said, as part of the review, Essex was also compared to its neighbours and municipalities beyond the region with similar features, characteristics, and level of service to Essex. “From that, they have identified some potential improvement opportunities, including a greater regional collaboration, which is a real high-stress point for the Province. And, those are things they are going to further explore in the next phase of the engagement.”

  Chris Loreto, Principal at StrategyCorp, said the first phase of the review included some opportunities for improvement in the overall administration. The review included around 30 improvement recommendations, some of which include the entire corporation, some are department specific, and others look at shared service opportunities with neighbouring municipalities. Essex was compared to similar municipalities, such as Amherstburg, Kingsville Leamington, Strathroy- Caradoc, and Tilsonburg, as part of the review.

  Eight of those recommendations, Loreto said, StrategyCorp identified as key areas that they want to focus on in the next phase of the review to look at potential cost-savings or efficiency gains.     

  The goal, he said, is to build continuous improvement culture in the organization.

  Through the review, StrategyCorp, Loreto said, Essex has achieved strong financial health and sustainability, by building up reserves and out-performing recommended targets for operating surplus.

  The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing benchmarks municipalities against five main areas of performance, and Essex exceeds the minimum benchmarks in all categories, Loreto said, adding the local municipality also outperformed peer comparators as well.

  Loreto added Essex has made investments in its “human capital,” and should continue to focus on enhancing training, professional development, and performance management to achieve maximum organizational capacity, and explore the potential of work-from-home arrangements.

  He also noted there are opportunities for regional collaboration and sharing of services. The initial channel for this type of activity may be through a shared services initiative of the County’s south shore municipalities to help build momentum and show proof of concept for further expansion.

  Councillor Chris Vander Doelen asked why there is mention of sharing on the south shore, but not on the northern half of the community. He also wondered why there was no mention of where there is infrastructure sharing (the sewage system in McGregor) and where it is not working.

  Loreto said there was geographic logic to it. What he does believe is that more shared services are probably in the long-term interest as Essex is not a large organization.   

  The Municipal Modernization Funding from the Province is not free, Loreto said, adding the money is provided to help municipalities become more efficient and to look for collaborations with neighbouring communities to stretch taxpayer dollars. A report will ultimately be sent to the Ministry, who, Loreta said, will expect municipalities to do things to become more efficient. It will be up to Essex to agree or disagree with what StrategyCorp notes are opportunities and prioritization.

  “Those municipalities that are able to show they made the most of the Modernization Funding will be those that if there ever is another round of amalgamation, let’s say, they may be lower on the list of targets than others who decide not to take advantage of the opportunity,” Loreto commented.

  Councillor Morley Bowman had concerns with the town becoming heavier in managing people with some of the suggestions made, but was sure there would be savings in buying in bulk and sharing technical services.

  Improvement areas in governance and strategy, Loreto said, include enterprise risk management and asset management. Maintaining a handle on risk, is important. He said Essex has a high level of tangible assets compared to its peers and a high OMPF allocation, “Both of which could put the Town at risk if not managed properly,” the report states.

  The Town does have an asset management assessment, which is critical to long-term financial planning.

  Councillor Sherry Bondy wanted to talk about asset management with Council and administration as she believes a fantastic job is being done in regards to that in Essex.  “I think it is one of our strengths, so I am looking to see where we are going.”

  Loreto also suggested implementation planning to help deliver on commitments, and the need for additional training to ensure Council is setting strategic priorities and giving direction to administration, and that administration is appropriately accountable to Council in the delivery of the priorities. The Council-staff relationship is not unique to Essex, it is something that always needs work, he said.

  As someone who has been on Council for over a decade, Bondy really doesn’t want to spend time, as a Councillor, getting lectured to leave operations to staff. If she is talking about certain operations, it is because there is an assumption they are not working.

  Loreto responded staff-Council relationships are always tricky. When he advises on this, it is to identify who does what.  

  Other suggestions included strengthening cross-department coordination, which could increase collaboration and information sharing, and developing a communications toolkit to help departments to better communicate. 

  Lauren Wyman, Project Manager for the Review, spoke of improvements that could be made under the people and culture category, that includes developing a comprehensive HR strategy with updated and standardized workforce policies. This could include staff retention, succession, and engagement, as concerns were heard around these areas.

  She added they heard there is a fairly strong dissatisfaction with the current physical work environment. Certain teams are also separated.

  Councillor Sherry Bondy, through the report, was hearing the need for the centralization of services. She said there is also resident frustration that Harrow residents have an hour-long round trip to utilize services at Town Hall in Essex Centre.

  Recommendations were also suggested under processes and technology, and service delivery, which included concerns of the lack of proper space as Town Hall is over capacity.

  Wyma also spoke of shared opportunities. The report noted that by sharing certain assets and resources with neighbouring municipalities, Essex can lower costs through economies of scale and scope. She also noted municipalities have realized savings through collaborative purchasing  

  The eight priority service delivery improvements StrategyCorp recommended for further exploration include provide training for Town’s CRM software and establish customer service policies; assess opportunities for new and upgraded facilities (new town hall) and develop an accommodation policy; review the current compliment of the clerks and consider increased centralization and generalization of the clerk function; hire and executive assistant to support the Mayor and CAO; update the asset management plan; further explore cost recovery improvements and potential impacts on key development services; explore the development of south shore share services initiative or corporation; explore sharing fire services with other municipalities in the south shore region.

  Bondy does not want to add a new hire, as a part time assistant for the CAO was just recruited, the Town also has a senior staff member who doubles as the Deputy CAO. She believes if better record management and organization is completed, then there will be a clearer road map and the Town would be more efficient.

  Loreto said improving processes can redeploy work requirements in the organization.

  As the report was 110 pages, and that was a lot to digest, Council met again on Monday evening, virtually, to provide more feedback. Council feedback will be taken so members of StrategyCorp could further refine their thinking about high potential opportunities that will be delved more deeply into in stage two of the review.

  Discussion on the matter continued on Monday evening, so Council could forward comments. Loreto noted Councillor Bondy and Joe Garon also forwarded email correspondence since the last meeting.

  Loreto said Council seemed generally supportive of the findings StrategyCorp provided, some of which will be taken into the next phase to be worked into a more cost-benefit business case analysis.

Vander Doelen said he was generally not in support of the report or its findings. He said he was disappointed in the report, as it was sold to Council as an exercise to find efficiencies and improvements to service delivery. Though the report seemed to look for improvements for service delivery, it seems that rather than looking for efficiencies, it instead outlined a wish list of staff wants and overlooked what residents are looking for.

  He thinks this is a missed opportunity, and thinks the report was more about expanding facilities and staff, than finding efficiencies.

  Loreto said the first phase is a Current State Assessment Report, where a number of improvement opportunities were identified. The next phase will look at creating a detailed business case for more efficiency improvements.

  Bondy has concerns with further amalgamation. If Council complies with the recommendations in the report, it is hoped Essex will be on the “Province’s good list.” And, perhaps, if the Province ever does want to pursue further amalgamation, Essex could bypass that.

The residents down here, she said, want to know what any amalgamation may mean, if there are any plans in the future.

  “What is going to become of us in the future?” she asked.

  Loreto said he is not saying further amalgamation will happen, “But, you wouldn’t have to strain yourself to say ‘they could happen in the next few years.’” He added that to do things to show the Modernization money the Ministry provided was put to good use and better efficiencies were developed, he believes those municipalities will be in a better spot if those pressures come.

  Councillor Kim Verbeek agreed with Vander Doelen that there is a lot from administration in the report, and some Councillors felt their remarks did not filter through. She asked if Council could feel confident the items they voiced will filter through.

  Loreto responded that, yes, they will. That was why the additional meeting with Council was held. In the next round, the items will be discussed and explored to see if they make sense.

  Deputy Mayor Richard Meloche commented he thought there was more opportunity to centralized items to County-level services. He wondered if there was potential for that.

  Loreto said in doing reports in Essex, Kingsville, Amherstburg, and Leamington, there seems to be some appetite at the local level to do more with each other, there didn’t seem to be a sense there is a political will at the County to take on more than it has. He said StrategyCorp will look into it, though.

  Following steps with the report includes refining priority improvements, developing of recommendations specific to high-impact opportunities; prepare and present recommendations and implementation report, and finalizing the report for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.