North

N.W.T. gov't hires 86 staff for COVID-19 secretariat before $87M budget approved

The territorial government is steaming ahead with the creation of a 150-person department dedicated to COVID-19, despite the fact that its budget is still yet to be approved.

‘We’re very optimistic’ spending will be approved, said Russell Neudorf, head of secretariat

The Legislative Assembly in the N.W.T. MLAs have yet to vote on the estimated $87 million budget for the territory's new COVID-19 secretariat, but hiring has already begun. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

The N.W.T. government is steaming ahead with the creation of a 150-person temporary department dedicated to COVID-19, despite the fact that its budget is still yet to be approved by MLAs.

In a technical briefing Thursday morning, Russell Neudorf, the newly appointed head of the COVID-19 "coordinating secretariat," said the department had already hired 86 staff and "additional job offers are going out almost daily."

Regular MLAs said they received little notice of the creation of the secretariat — or its $87-million price tag — before it was announced in a committee meeting earlier this month.

Since then, it has come under fire as an ill-advised expansion of government — the largest in recent memory — at a time when the territory's private sector is badly struggling.

"I believe this is in part because we may have not done the best job at explaining how this body will benefit residents and businesses," Neudorf said in Thursday's briefing.

The substance of the briefing was a short slideshow featuring the government's updated messaging on the secretariat, which they maintain will "streamline" the territory's COVID-19 response and enable them to "find efficiencies" in the process.

"We will be able to streamline our operations and, in the end, get a better deal for taxpayers," Neudorf said.

But Neudorf struggled to provide clear answers on how the secretariat would result in any cost savings when the government is requesting up to $37 million in COVID-19 spending for next year, an increase of $2.6 million to the current cost of COVID-19 services.

Russell Neudorf at a briefing in 2016. Neudorf is now the assistant deputy minister in charge of the COVID-19 secretariat. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Neudorf also addressed confusion about how many new positions were being created for the secretariat. The Department of Finance had previously told CBC all 150 jobs are new, but in an editorial published in the Yellowknifer, Premier Caroline Cochrane said "only 10 of the 150 positions required are new."

Neudorf clarified that the 10 positions Cochrane mentioned are policy and communications staff that did not exist while the work was distributed among multiple departments.

Neudorf said there are currently 163 staff working on COVID-19 across at least five government departments, many of which will transfer to the secretariat.

"I hope you do not think of this as a new organization," Neudorf said. "This is the same pandemic response unit you've known for the past six months, brought under one roof."

But in their wake, they will leave some vacancies that will need to be filled in the departments they leave behind.

Spend money on mandate issues: chambers of commerce

The briefing followed a second open letter on the secretariat from the N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce, supported by seven other chambers of commerce and industry associations.

"Each one of these 150 positions are a one-time value for dollar," it reads.

The letter calls on the government to "stimulate the private sector" through investment in mandate items identified by MLAs at the beginning of their term last October.

It's not a foregone conclusion.- Russell Neudorf, head of COVID-19 secretariat

The letter notes the budget for the secretariat is enough to build 313 new houses, give more than 1,200 businesses $50,000 in financial support, or nearly quadruple the budget for the Department of Education, Culture and Employment.

Neudorf said he had seen the letter and "read it with interest." He said businesses asked for improved response times from Protect NWT, which approves and answers questions on COVID-19 reopening plans, and the secretariat would accomplish that.

"[The] COVID[-19] secretariat is an investment in getting businesses the support and information they need to thrive during this pandemic," he said.

Neudorf also said there would be opportunities to partner with the private sector in delivering the COVID-19 response.

Territorial government offices in downtown Yellowknife. Neudorf said 86 staff had already been hired and more job offers were 'going out almost daily.' (Walter Strong/CBC)

'Very optimistic' budget will be approved

The budget for the secretariat has yet to be approved by MLAs, but as evidenced by their hires, Neudorf said the government is "very optimistic" it will be approved.

"It's not a foregone conclusion," said Neudorf. But if the budget is not approved, he said, "we'd need to continue to draw on resources from the departments" — suggesting funding for the new staff would be found in those departments' budgets.

Many of the 86 staff have already been signed to one-year contracts with the option to extend.

Despite seeing no new cases in nearly six months, the N.W.T. is the only jurisdiction in Canada to create a dedicated department to manage the territory's response.

The government is planning to keep the secretariat in place for one to two years, but Neudorf was unclear on how the secretariat would eventually be dissolved.

He said the hope is, as the pandemic starts to wind down, the chief public health officer will lift public health orders requiring border controls and reopening plans. 

Then, he said, "the secretariat won't need to be set up to do its business anymore."

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