THUNDER BAY – Thunder Bay’s city council has approved a $1 million move for its legal services department, which staff reported is facing severe space constraints.
The division will move from the third floor of city hall to a larger space on the building’s main floor.
The revenue division, which currently occupies that space, will be relocated to the seventh floor of the city-owned Whalen Building.
The plan will cost roughly $1.01 million, administration estimated in a report. About $400,000 of that relates to moving revenue to the Whalen building.
City solicitor Patty Robinet said her division is short of space for at least four people, even as administration warned it's contemplating future staffing expansions.
One staff member is currently working from home due to limited space, and two others are working at the nearby Chapple Building, she said. The city's lease for that space is set to expire in 2024.
Legal services also reported scuttling a potential student placement from Lakehead University’s Law School over the issue.
While the city is exploring work from home initiatives, city manager Norm Gale said legal services staff are more tied to the office than most.
“In the future, I do see less square feet of space for administration,” he said. “However, the legal services division is a little bit different… They need to be tied to paper files."
The Chapple location includes no room for expansion, and the separation poses communication challenges, staff said.
The city also cited “an increase in large, complex legal files," citing real estate issues connected to waterfront development and litigation files including class action lawsuits as two examples.
City manager Norm Gale emphasized the decision would have no impact on the 2022 or 2023 tax levies, since the cost would be drawn from reserves.
Staff estimate legal services has generated around $3.1 million in savings since 2017 through steps including a 2020 staffing reorganization, bolstering the city’s reserves.
“Yes, we would be spending money, but that’s money we’ve put away,” Gale said. “There’s no impact.”
It’s a line to which Coun. Mark Bentz took exception.
“I don’t like it when people state there’s no impact, because there is an impact,” he said. “There’s a million dollars coming out of a reserve that can’t be used for something else – maybe a road, maybe a sidewalk.”
He questioned the need to make a major financial decision outside of the annual budget process.
“This is a $1 million expenditure coming in August outside of budget,” he said. “Yeah, there’s some inconvenience here if we don’t move forward right now. I just don’t like these things coming to us [outside of the budget process].”
“I understand the need for this, but I’ll bet if you didn’t have $1 million, you’d find another solution – just like any business would that didn’t have $1 million.”
Coun. Peng You also questioned the decision's timing, saying it would be more appropriate to let the next council elected Oct. 24 decide.
Foulds called approving the expense “uncomfortable,” but added it’s not uncommon for council to approve major expenses outside of the budget process.
Ultimately, he saw little point in delaying what he called a necessary expense.
“We’re living in a more litigious society, and frankly we’ve got to amp up what we do to protect the municipality,” he said. “One of the ways we can do that is making sure they have reasonable working spaces.”
“I’m not happy to support it, but it looks like something we have to do,” agreed Coun. Brian Hamilton.
He also sought assurances the move would provide room for future expansion.
Administration’s report states an expansion of two full-time staff may be needed “within the near future” at legal services.
However, council wasn’t ready to approve a call by Coun. Aldo Ruberto to begin that expansion immediately.
He had pushed to add $150,000 to the 2023 budget to hire an additional in-house lawyer, suggesting it could generate savings.
Councillors rejected the motion, with several saying they’d prefer to see the request come from the city solicitor’s office if needed, along with supporting information.
The division currently includes the city solicitor, two deputy solicitors (one focused on litigation and one on real estate), and a junior lawyer.
The city reported spending around $570,000 on non-insured external legal fees in 2021, the category of work staff said the additional lawyer envisioned in Ruberto's motion would likely take on.
It's not clear how much of that could be saved with the addition of another solicitor, however.