Matichuk was commenting on the transit budget, which is $885,000 more than forecast in 2013. A big part of the overage is higher-than-expected demand for Handi Transit buses, which accounted for $215,000 of the overruns.
But higher-than-forecast salary expenses played a major role, and Matichuk said it's a problem that happens too often in transit.
“I'd like to see a plan on that, with respect to getting those costs down,” Matichuk said Tuesday's finance committee meeting. “I'm also very, very concerned because we had an operational review of that area and we continue to have variances every year.”
She suggested looking at transit systems in other communities, to see whether they have faced similar challenges and how they dealt with it.
“I'm going to be doing some research on that, because it's unacceptable every year, to be continually and habitually over. We have to get to the root cause and fix those problems.”
In 2013, Sudbury Transit's net budget was forecast to be $13,078,475, but came in at $13,951,182, with salary costs more than $500,000 more than anticipated. In 2012, it was forecast at $12,615,715, but came in at $13,134,312.
However, an operational review in 2012 found transit was understaffed by at least five people, burdening managers and inspectors with too administrative work. There was also a shortage of mechanics, and the report called for increased maintenance of buses. The review also called for more money for staff training, and more resources for transit as it adopts the wide-ranging changes the report recommended.
Its net budget increased by almost $500,000 in 2013, but a spate of assaults on transit operators pushed salary costs higher. Transit director Roger Sauvé said the effects of those assaults linger today.
“Our employees, the ones who were assaulted, have not been back to work yet,” Sauvé said. “So there's a significant impact on the salary budget.”
He also said a new process to determine who is eligible for Handi-Transit should help in stabilizing those costs.
“One thing we had to look at this year was the approval process, to make sure the right people are riding the system,” Sauvé said.
But Matichuk said rather than reacting to incidents — as they did last year, when an ad hoc committee was set up to look at how to deal with the assaults on the operators — she said allocating money now on finding ways to stabilize sick leave issues would pay off in the long run.
She has seen the approach work in the past, Matichuk said, in her former role as a health and safety professional at the city and in the private sector.
“It's time that we come up with a plan, and I think through HR, that we dedicate some resources to that area to start to look at some of the root causes,” she said. “I do understand that it's difficult to, with modified work, you have to have somebody in the chair. (But) it can be done.”
But Ward 2 Coun. Jacques Barbeau, who chairs the operations committee, said the mayor was assuming transit wasn't already working on the problem. And unlike some other departments, who may be able to operate with less staff when someone is sick, transit routes have to keep operating.
“The interesting thing about transit is, when people don't show up for work, don't show up to to do their runs in the morning due to illness ... we don't just say we're not going to do that run today,” Barbeau said. “I think the comments, quite frankly, are very unfair and unfounded. And before we start throwing darts and daggers about what's happening in transit, let's ask transit what is being done.”
A lot of work has been done over the last year, for example, in training staff on how to deal with problems with riders, and cameras have been installed on the buses to discourage future violence.
“But when the budget's wrong — and the budget has been wrong in transit for a number of years — the problem is not going to rectify itself overnight,” Barbeau said. “We have a great transit system. We offer superior service. We just came back from the CUETA conference in Calgary, and we are held in high esteem with our transit system, and we need to recognize that.”
But Matichuk said she wasn't blaming anyone, but was promoting a proactive approach by trying to deal with issues before they become critical.
“That's all I was asking — it's not meant to bash anyone,” she said. “This was not meant to point daggers or fingers.”