SYDNEY — Cape Breton Regional Municipality's chief financial officer, and acting chief administrative officer, is no longer acting. Marie Walsh now holds the top job at CBRM.
After a 90-minute in-camera interview on Monday afternoon, council held a special meeting and voted unanimously to name Walsh CAO effective immediately, at an annual salary of $194,750.
Walsh, who was hired as CBRM's director of finance in 2007 and was named chief financial officer in 2014, holds two bachelor of business administration degrees — a general BBA from Cape Breton University and a BBA in accounting from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.
Under Walsh's guidance, CBRM has brought its total debt down from $110 million in 2010 to $76 million this year.
A native of Sydney, Walsh told Local Xpress a reorganization of the municipal government three years ago was required because expenses kept growing, but revenue increases just couldn't keep up over the long term.
The plan was to shave about $4 million off the annual operating costs by this year, but it was more successful than expected, she said.
CBRM is already about $6.5 million ahead of the game after cutting about 40 union and management jobs through attrition, reducing operating hours at the garbage dump from six days a week to five, closing satellite citizen service centres and other measures, said Walsh.
"We ran the numbers the other day and we're about $2.5 million ahead of where we thought we'd be fiscally, so it's certainly going very well, but there's still work to be done," she said.
"There was a lot of changes at the time. Difficult changes. The public didn't like all the changes, especially (closing the dump one day a week). We still seem to get grief about that one, but certainly we needed to do those just to be sustainable."
The municipality is also expecting a wave of retirements in the near future, she said, and while some of those positions won't necessarily be cut, some may be "rationalized" or shuffled around within CBRM departments to focus on different priorities.
"In some places we've cut pretty slim and we're struggling to get the work done and it's causing some overtime in some areas. So we really do have to have a look at where the resources are needed the most.
"I think the big initiatives for CBRM, and certainly as a council, the priority is economic development, so we'll be focusing on that, but to do that, we need to resource our economic development department better," said Walsh.
CBRM has one economic development officer and he needs help, she said.
The CAO position became available after Michael Merritt announced in March that he was leaving to take a job in Alberta, after nearly three years at the helm. His salary was $180,000 annually.
Mayor Cecil Clarke said Walsh was the only candidate who applied for the job after an internal application process, but council still needed to meet in camera to interview her.
Having been involved heavily in the reorganization and being president of the Association of Municipal Administrators Nova Scotia, Walsh has plenty of experience in CBRM and in dealing with issues at a provincial level.
"Everything's been a unanimous vote (of council) on the process," said Clarke. "So what that tells you probably is that council is very comfortable with making that decision, and you know, since coming into being mayor and working with Marie in that role ... she can go toe to toe with anyone on numbers in this province or anywhere else."
Walsh's salary is an increase, he said, but it's commensurate with the responsibilities of running the province's second-largest municipality, which has economic challenges.
According to Halifax Regional Municipality's statement of staff compensation, the CAO last year was paid $300,592.82 in salary and $45,743.89 in other benefits, for a total of $346,336.71.
"This is always a challenge," said Clarke. "Some people will always look at Halifax versus Sydney. Well, I look at the challenges a CAO has here versus the challenges of a CAO in Halifax, and look at our economics and pressures that require a lot of time and attention that otherwise a CAO is directing towards another, larger pool of staff and expertise, and having the ability to hire in other consultants.
"We're in-house here, where a lot of that work is done by the team ... because we just don't have that luxury of extra money."