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Five questions with Annette Antoniak, CAO of Wood Buffalo

One of Annette Antoniak’s first moves as city manager in Wood Buffalo was to eliminate 168 positions as part of a measure designed to cut $121-million in costs over five years.

Annette Antoniak took over as interim chief administrative officer in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo on Dec. 8. Prior to that, she had served as CEO of the municipality's regional recreation corporation for 18 months.

She came to Fort McMurray in April, 2015, after a lengthy career that included stints as a deputy minister in British Columbia's provincial government, CAO of the City of Penticton, B.C., and president of the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver.

One of her first moves in her new role as city manager in Wood Buffalo was to eliminate 168 positions as part of a measure designed to cut $121-million in costs over five years.

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She recently sat down with Globe and Mail reporter Marty Klinkenberg to talk about the job cuts and other issues.

What brought you to Fort McMurray from Penticton?

I was headhunted for the position of CAO of the regional recreation corporation. It is work I have done in the past and was actually something I missed. I was flown here for the interview and was surprised at what was here to offer.

When I went back to Penticton and told the mayor and council, they asked, "Did we do something wrong?" I told them no, that I just wanted a change. After five years of being a city manager, I thought it was time to get back into operations, and this opportunity presented itself. I thought it would be a great opportunity to bring my skill set to this region.

What were the circumstances then that led to you accepting the position in Wood Buffalo as interim chief administrative officer?

I hadn't thought about coming into this position. The mayor and council reached out because their CAO was retiring. It was kind of an awkward time because this is a year where a new council will be elected. Instead of recruiting a brand new CAO, they wanted to leave that up to a new mayor and council. So the opportunity presented to me was, "Can you be seconded from your position at the regional recreation corporation and help us out for a year?" and that is what I am doing.

The economy here has suffered from cutbacks in the oil sands and was exacerbated by last year's wildfires. How difficult was it to announce the job losses you announced in January?

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I was hired as the new CAO to implement findings that resulted from a core review. Sadly, I had done the same thing for the City of Penticton, so I brought that experience to the table with me. I had the benefit of having been in the community [for nearly] two years and had seen what has happened with the economy, and how everybody has had to pull in and do what's right. Revenues are down, and when revenues are down, you have to look at your operational budget. And 52 per cent of ours is labour cost. It is a huge number.

It is very unfortunate but this is taxpayers' money. At the end of the day, as a municipality, we cannot run a deficit. These are challenging and difficult times and these are not easy decisions to make. It is hard not to be emotional.

You just completed a round of budget meetings looking at 2017 and the following two years. What was accomplished?

We introduced zero-based budgeting to the management team, which is something I did as CAO in Penticton and in my previous role with the Pacific National Exhibition. Zero-based budgeting is where you really get into detail, line by line. What it does is open up the entire corporation's budget to the management team. When you go through the process, you can actually look for efficiencies and see duplications within different departments that have been working in silos. It makes you a tighter team through challenging each other in a respectful way.

The feedback I have had is that it was very rewarding. Managers feel they have a better understanding of the budget.

Are you considering more layoffs?

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People get alarmed because they think you are looking for more reduction in labour, but that is not what zero-based-budgeting is. We have already done our realignment, and we are also not looking at cutting programs and services. What we are looking for is low-hanging fruit within the budget, duplications people have not recognized because they have been working in different silos. There may be a way to cost-share, and there may be a different way to deliver programs. Those are the things you look for.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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