Does St. Albert spend too much on consultants?
That’s a question on the minds of some city councillors during the 2011 budget process, which has about a month to go before wrapping up.
An administrative report shows that the city spent $624,000 on consultants in 2010, up from $576,000 in 2009 and $522,000 in 2008. In 2007, the city spent just $338,000.
Administration is asking for $485,500 for consultants in 2011.
Coun. Roger Lemieux requested the report because he’s always had a problem with the amount the city spends on outside experts.
“In running a business, like I did for many years, I never had to hire outside consultants … I guess I knew what I was doing,” he said. “My question would be, why can’t we plan our own city?”
Lemieux doesn’t plan to introduce any specific motions aimed at limiting the use of consultants but vowed to be watchful.
“I’m going to be more like a hawk in terms of watching the money we spend on outside consultants because we have over 530 staff,” he said.
The issue is a concern to Coun. Malcolm Parker.
“The perception out there seems to be that every time something comes up and it needs to be studied we’ll just hire a consultant to it,” he said. “You start adding it up and it becomes a significant number.”
He questions whether the city has to commission a community satisfaction survey every year.
“I think you’ve got to be very cautious before you take the easy way out and hire a consultant … particularly when it deals with something that we already know,” he said.
Parker has a related motion in the works that he won’t share until later in the budget process, he said.
Much of the consultant hiring is a result of council initiatives that require expertise the city doesn’t have in-house, said city manager Bill Holtby.
“We’re large enough that we’ve got many professionals, however we’re also small enough that we don’t have them all,” he said. “The majority of our professionals are more generalists than specialists.”
Initiatives like the state of the Sturgeon River report and the downtown area redevelopment plan are examples of the city needing outside expertise, Holtby said.
“Part of the way that we limit our staff size is by utilizing consultants because then they’re not on staff all the time,” Holtby said.
Lynda Flannery of the St. Albert Taxpayers’ Association has long complained the city uses outside consultants far too often. This brings wastefulness because council sometimes kills the project the consultant worked on or votes against consultants’ recommendations, she said.
“We’d suggest that the city be more moderate in the pace it moves forward with all the studies and projects it would like to undertake. Everything does not have to be done during the reign of a particular council or administration,” she said.
Mayor Nolan Crouse agreed that it’s important to only hire consultants on projects that are funded to proceed.
“What you don’t want to be doing is hiring experts if you don’t have the work planned,” he said. “There’s no use hiring on a study or a report if you’re not going to act on it.”