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Minister bemoans retention woes

Elizabeth McMillan
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, February 3, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - Attracting people to work with the territorial government continues to be a problem and more money is being put towards staff, according to Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger.

NNSL photo/graphic

Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger says 18 per cent of GNWT positions are now vacant and the territory needs to maintain wages that will attract and retain staff. - NNSL photo

The GNWT's new budget has more money allocated to each department, which includes increased funds for compensation and benefits.

Miltenberger said much of this increase is due to previously-negotiated agreements that have now gone into effect. The GNWT signed a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the Union of Northern Workers, which included a two per cent pay raise in 2009, 2.5 this year and 2.75 next year.

He said there is currently an 18 per cent vacancy rate across the government and wages must be competitive to keep employees. The Department of Human Resources couldn't confirm how many people are currently employed with the GNWT. There are 4,822 positions budgeted for 2010-2011, 73 more positions than were included in the previous budget.

"We're trying to do a better job of hiring Northerners, we're trying to do a better job of retaining people," he said. "We have a significant retention issue we're trying to address."

He said a few new jobs have been created but "there's not a lot of position growth, we're trying to control the costs."

Miltenberger's stance is a far cry from then-finance minister Floyd Roland's position two years ago, when he wanted to cut 135 public service positions, a move met with a firestorm of opposition.

Todd Parsons, president of the Union for Northern Workers - the union that dedicated $1 million to opposing those job cuts in 2008, said the new budget was a stay the course approach.

"Overall it's fair considering the economic downturn we appear to be recovering from," he said.

Parsons said he was pleased there were no reductions in the labour force but said more emphasis could have been put on social services.

Parsons acknowledged keeping employees was an ongoing issue for the GNWT.

"Retaining the public service has been a challenge for this government for a number of years," he said.

Miltenberger tabled the 2010-2011 budget last Thursday and the legislative assembly has begun reviewing the proposed spending.

"Between health and education, that takes on 50 per cent of our budget. If you tack on housing and justice, we're spending 65 cents for every dollar on social programs," he said, calling it a "significant commitment" to social programs.

"Could we use more? Yes," he said. "But we don't have it."

Travel budgets are also going up with increases in every department except Municipal and Community Affairs, as its travel money is set to go down 24.7 per cent.

When asked why travel budgets would increase when the price of travel to the south has decreased, Miltenberger said of the $12 million the GNWT allocates to travel, 80 per cent goes toward travel within the territory.

Using the example of paying $1,200 to fly directly between Fort Smith and Edmonton return, Miltenberger said "prices and costs across the North haven't diminished.

"There's a price war going on in Yellowknife and Yellowknife is a huge beneficiary of that.

"Outside of Yellowknife, I don't think travel prices have dropped."

He said the travel budgets are a necessary part of maintaining contact with constituents.

"There is a significant expectation the government is going to be there to service the people. They expect to see ministers and MLAs out in their regions," Miltenberger said.

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