The City of Saint John's year-old hiring freeze is over now that the pension issue is resolved, but the city still doesn't have an operating budget for 2013 due to the pension developments.
Council voted on Wednesday night to table the draft budget again after city managers asked for more time to finalize the numbers in light of the terms and costs associated with long-term disability insurance coverage being resolved over the holidays.
Council will meet again on Monday at 5 p.m. to debate the draft budget, which includes $147.9 million in spending with the property tax rate remaining the same.
Meanwhile, the city also plans to host a public meeting to explain the new shared-risk pension model to city staff and retirees, at the suggestion of Coun. John MacKenzie.
"And that gives everybody an opportunity to go out and learn a little bit about the pension plan and quell any fears that they have, or just get the answers first hand," said MacKenzie.
"It gives them the opportunity to get the first hand approach."
A date for the meeting has not yet been set, but city officials hope New Brunswick's superintendent of pensions, Angela Mazerolle Stephens, can attend, along with Susan Rowland, the head of the province's task force on pension reform.
Won't hire 'holus-bolus'
The city will also be looking to fill at least some of the vacant positions at city hall, said Saint John Mayor Mel Norton. The hiring freeze was imposed by the previous council due to the financial uncertainty facing the city over to the pension deficit, he said.
"Because of the resolve on the pension matter, as I understand it, the hiring freeze would now have expired," Norton said.
Three of the six senior commissioner positions are vacant: community enrichment, which includes recreation; development and growth; which includes planning; and environment, which includes water and sewage.
There are also dozens of lower-level vacancies within the organization after some employees retired, as scheduled, and some left because of the uncertainty surrounding the pension crisis, said Norton.
'Everything's not rosy yet.'—Coun. Bill Farren
The city will not be hiring "holus-bolus," he stressed.
The duties and responsibilities of each job will be weighed carefully in light of a recent review of city services, he said.
Coun. Bill Farren said he believes a full hiring freeze should continue for now.
"Everything's not rosy yet," he said.
"We have to have a few months under our belt at least to see if this plan's going to work and to be sure that we are going to realize the savings that we think we are," Farren said.
Any decision to fill a vacancy should take place only after a public discussion at city council, he said.
The city and its four unions, representing police, firefighters, inside and outside workers, signed a long-term disability deal on Dec. 27 that will remodel the near-bankrupt pension plan.
Council has agreed to pay 100 per cent of long-term disability premiums for ill and injured workers for two years.
Council had voted earlier in December to adopt a new shared-risk pension plan, but long-term disability is not covered under the new model and the deal could not be finalized until an agreement was reached with unions on how to provide long-term disability coverage to 64 workers who are currently receiving those benefits.
Under the new shared-risk model, the city and its workers will share the risk for future deficits. It also opens the option to temporarily reduce benefits if the fund falls behind.
Saint John politicians must now find at least $12 million every year to pay down the pension fund deficit, which now stands at $161 million.
The city’s pension deficit under the old system had been estimated at $195 million.