Burlington seniors clean up big time, city gives them buckets of money; Mayor promises to join when he qualifies.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  July 13, 2012   Burlington’s Seniors made it big time Thursday morning. Joe Lamb, a member of the Seniors’ Centre negotiating team that has been meeting with the city for some time to create a revised Memorandum of Agreement (MOU) that will keep everyone happy while the seniors enjoy using the centre and the city pays most of the bills.

Lamb asked the crowd of close to 150 people to vote for the MOU that had been approved by the Centre’s Board of Management (BOM)

It was hard not to vote for the agreement – which the members in the room did unanimously.

Lead negotiator for the seniors was Joe Lamb on the left talking to city manager Jeff Fielding on the right. The agreement they hammered out was approved unanimously by the seniors Centre membership. Lamb kind of liked being back in harness. On the far right are Parks and Recreation Director Chris Glenn and general manager Scott Stewart.  They now have to make the agreement work once it is passed by city council.

The city insisted that the Centre’s Board of Management incorporate, not something they were all that keen on doing – but the city slid $5000 across the table to help out and it took about a Nano second for the BOM to take up that offer.  Lamb explained that “some of you felt that incorporation meant the  BOM was going to start running the Centre in its entirety and the City was going to have very little to do with the centre. I want to assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Your Board has no desire to venture down that road whatsoever.”

The city wanted to see the Centre with the appropriate liability insurance – city wanted that in place badly enough that they said they would pay that as well.

Things were looking really good for the Seniors and Lamb certainly proved his mettle as a negotiator.  There really wasn’t anything he didn’t get.

The Centre runs a small kitchen which has been a significant point of contention with the city – when you can’t resolve a problem – put it off for a year and agree to continue to talk about it – which is just what Lamb and the city Manager Jeff Fielding agreed to do.

Sales at the Bistro, the small kitchen at the Seniors’ Centre,  should have had HST applied – the Centre hadn’t been doing that for the past three years and the number crunchers came to the conclusion that the Centre owned the government close to $20,000 – not to worry the city is going to pick up half of that amount.

Clearly the people at city hall wanted an agreement in place with the seniors and were going to throw as much money as necessary to get the Seniors’ to vote for the Memorandum of Agreement agreed upon.

The Seniors are really feeling their oats.  They’ve realized they have real political clout.  When they  don’t get what they want they pick up their  phones and call their Council members – and when 3000 seniors make phone calls you know what happens to a Council member who now has  to deal with these people.  They call the administration and howl – fix this problem.

The seniors can tie up a phone line for 15 minutes – most probably has their Council members’ phone number on speed dial.

As Lamb got into the meat of the agreement he explained to the 150 people in the room that the arrangement with the city was going to be a “collaborative and cooperative partnership between the city, members, and the Board of Management”.

The revised MOU gives the seniors exclusive use of the space from 8 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday.  They can’t just be bumped out of a program because the city wants to use the space.  There will be occasions when the space is used by others – elections is one of those occasions. Lamb explained that the revised MOU will set out what has been practice in the past but is now on paper and in writing.  So when the seniors have exclusive use of the space is now clear.

The Bistro, the heart of the Seniors’ Centre and the focal point for many of the administrative problems. The new agreement with the city didn’t resolve this problem but they have agreed to give it a year to come up with a solution that works for everyone.

The biggest problem area has been the kitchen. In many ways it is the heart of the Centre.  They call it the Bistro and is run jointly with the city.  The one employee, Maria, is on the city payroll, mostly because the Centre doesn’t have anyone who can process a payroll and ensure all the proper deductions are made.

But with Maria on the city payroll – the city needs to ensure they have the required oversight and that was the problem – the seniors didn’t want the city getting involved in the running of the kitchen and the city didn’t want to be in the kitchen either.  When there is any food handling involved the city out sources the work.  The seniors began to have vision of a pair of Gold Arches appearing in the building.  They had a neat little kitchen operation and they wanted to keep it that way.  Fine said the city but if the employee is on our payroll there is some liability that lands on the city’s desk and if there was going to be liability – the city wanted control, or at least enough control to be able to manage the problems when they crop up.

You can begin to see how the two sides to this one were shaping up.

And that is where the working relationship between Lamb and Fielding, the city manager came into play.  They agreed that an agreement was necessary but they didn’t have one – so they would agree to work together with the revised MOU for a year and during that time let experience and time get put to use to find something that works for everyone.

The reality of this is that the employee is on the city payroll in a building the city owns – that boils down to the city having the final word.  That is something the seniors are going to have to accept.  Fielding just has to find language that keeps the seniors happy. The seniors all recognise the phrase “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” and they have a year to figure out just  how much sugar is going to be needed.  The city doesn’t appear to have too many problems spending money on seniors.

Five thousand for incorporation, $9,000, give or take a couple of hundred for insurance – tasting pretty sweet at this point.

The BOM owns some of the equipment in the kitchen, the city owns the rest. BOM reimburses the City for Maria’s costs and any profit or loss for the kitchen goes to the BOM

The kitchen is rented out many times in the evening and weekends by the city. Both parties share keeping the place clean and for the most part the city is responsible for bigger maintenance and capital items. It is a unique arrangement which seems to work.

BOM doesn’t want to take over the operation of the kitchen; to do so would mean taking on the same contingent liability.  The Board turns over quickly with only 2 year terms, and although have some kitchen knowledge there are no assurances that this will continue in the future.

Insurance is such a critical part of this joint venture the city will be arranging and paying for the insurances required by the BOM, which Lamb said was “very much appreciated” .

BOM and the city agreed to give it some time for the kitchen issue to be worked through and to use the positive tone of their discussions to get to a conclusion everyone can live with .

Because of the liability involved the city wants to ensure that during the next year the kitchen meets government standards, which means oversight.  It’s a delicate dance – but both parties want to be out there on that dance floor, so they will work something out – unless the seniors get cantankerous and then they will lose everything.

Currently 10% of all rentals, program fees and membership fees go into a special Reserve fund to support capital improvements at the Centre.  The fund has grown to about $222,000.  The Board can access these funds for projects or emergencies with the permission of the Director of Parks and Recreation.

Communicating has consistently been the problem and along with it some sensitivity to the different roles each group plays.  The city has responsibilities, the centre has people it wants to care for.  The city runs programs, takes care of facilities and has different supervisors handling these things.  The BOM people would like there to be one point person for them to deal with at city hall. The best Lamb could do on that was plant the seed and hope for the best.

More than 150 members showed up to learn about the new agreement with the city and to vote for it unanimously. Quite a difference between this meeting and the 300 members who were angry at a February meeting.

The MOU has provision for the city and BOM to me at least once a year to develop plans and get feedback and input from the members It is easy, said Lamb to blame the other party when problems crop up; we need to ensure that this type of divide never exists again.

Joe Lamb’s wife, Cathy, used to be the liaison between the city and the seniors’ Centre.  She retired and the person put in as her replacement didn’t bring quite the same touch to the task.  Things went downhill from there which brought forward the need to revise the working arrangement.

Having a document in place is one step – finding the right people who can and want to bring the needed level of professionalism and care to a task is something else.  Burlington has one growth industry – seniors.  The city already has the largest seniors population in the Region.

The city struggles with getting some commercial growth in the downtown core; it doesn’t have to struggle for the growth in the seniors population.

What it does have to do is find the kind of people at city hall who can work with seniors and then begin giving some thought to operations in different parts of the city.  What is there for people between the QEW and Dundas other than programs run at different churches?  Is Aldershot adequately served?

There is no strategy for serving the growing seniors population.  Councillors Sharman and Dennison have held workshops with different seniors groups but we’ve not seen any initiatives come out of these meetings.  Data has been gathered, opinions recorded – time now for some action.  It is time for Burlington to come up with a strategy on how they are going to serve these people.

They seniors want taxes to be kept low and they want better service – those two don’t complement each other.  While many seniors don’t want to use public transit, partly because we have a poor transit system, not one geared to their needs.  The time however is going to come when many if not most of those seniors will not be able to drive.  The city is going to have to find ways to allow them to get about the city and bicycles aren’t the answer.

The seniors won much of this last scuffle.  But there is a bigger challenge looming out there and it has to be met.

Ultimately the city is responsible for the Centre and unless the newly incorporated BOM wants to indemnify the city, and the insurance for that would be stiff, this is a city operation with all the input the seniors want to make – as long as they are reasonable.

Times have changed and the seniors need to move along with the change.

Some things though just won’t change.

Before the meeting started the seniors were asked to stand and sing O’Canada, which they did with strong voices – and did a much better job than city council members do at council meetings.

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2 comments to Burlington seniors clean up big time, city gives them buckets of money; Mayor promises to join when he qualifies.

  • John Adamson

    “Joe Lamb’s wife, Cathy, used to be the liaison between the city and the seniors’ Centre. She retired and the person put in as her replacement didn’t bring quite the same touch to the task. Things went downhill from there which brought forward the need to revise the working arrangement.”

    What a complete BS statement to make about the new staff person who is extremely capable. The New staff person walked into a situation that has been in the making for years! The past manger of the centre is the one that allowed the mess to start in the first place and the new manager is the one faced with correcting past issues.

    I think it was very unprofessional that Cathy and Joe Lamb were involved with this situation. Cathy retired…move on. Why the husband felt it necessary to get his nose in there is beyond me? Did he feel no other member of the centre could handle it? He was not even a member of the centre but suddenly joined to what, “save the day” Hog wash!

    The current City staff at the Senior Centre have been put in a rotten position and but by their doing but by the Board of Management AND the past centre manager.

    This article is so one side i find it very unfair to those who work everyday to bring quality programs to all seniors.

  • Eric Howard

    Pepper I think you and your readers should be disabused of any notion that members of the Seniors’ Centre have negotiated a freeload on the taxpayers gravy train.

    The City’s spontaneous offer of covering incorporation and insurance expense pays dividends to the City in insuring Volunteers do not have to worry about offering substantial and significant unpaid volunteer hours to making things happen and work for all parties.

    We are not smugly thinking “We won” but consider this a good news outcome and a “Win-Win”for all parties.

    Senior Centre members are not only members of the Centre but taxpayers as well. As such have committed the Board in the document to work towards minimizing the reliance on the tax base. We have done that in spades with significant hard dollar donations, donations of significant volunteer hours, and annually increasing the fee structure as appropriate.

    Dealing with change is exactly what we did in cooperation with the City’s concern with the current issues surrounding liability. All aspects were reviewed, changes made where proven to be necessary and whatever else that was deemed to be working was left alone.