County increases IT staff amid pandemic

By Chad Ingram

The COVID-19 pandemic, and, in particular, online council and committee meetings, is putting Haliburton County’s IT department into overdrive, and county council has agreed the county will hire an additional IT staff person to help alleviate that pressure.

The county IT department provides technical support to the upper tier of the county, as well as its four lower-tier municipalities. Starting late April, council meetings throughout the county began resuming, in a new, online format amid the COVID-19 crisis. Council meetings take place via online conferencing app Zoom, and are broadcast to the public via YouTube. Most of these meetings are facilitated by the county’s IT department, creating a large increase in workload.

“IT has provided onsite support for the majority of these meetings as well as provided training to clerks and other staff involved in the scheduling and running of virtual meetings through Zoom,” reads a report from IT director Mike March that councillors received during a Sept. 23 meeting. “Recently, the municipalities have been considering when they should begin conducting other advisory committee meetings. Assuming that these meetings, along with council and committee meetings, will have to have a virtual component for the foreseeable future, the IT director is concerned with how this extra workload can be absorbed by the IT department and still continue to meet its core support obligations.”

The IT department currently has three staff members. March’s report indicated the IT department is currently spending 15 to 20 hours per week supporting council, committee and planning meetings, including travel, setup and teardown time.

“During these meetings, IT is typically onsite to offer support for running the livestream portion of the meeting, as well as offering technical support in the event of connection problems,” March’s report reads. “While onsite for support, it is difficult for staff to work on other support requests, as they cannot make phone calls and are cautious not to make any noise (i.e. typing) lest they disrupt the meeting. Tasks that require prolonged focus are difficult to perform, as staff have to pay attention to livestream feed, and the Zoom meeting (including visual cues from in-room participants) so they can ensure there are no problems. When onsite assisting with a Zoom meeting, it is estimated staff work at approximately 25 per cent capacity when working on Help Desk requests.”

March’s report included four options for council’s consideration, ranging from approving additional overtime hours for IT staff – the report noted the availability of staff to put in overtime could not be guaranteed – to the hiring of a fourth IT department employee, in either a full-time or temporary full-time capacity.

“The IT department’s workload has increased to the point that a fourth person could be utilized above and beyond what would be required for supporting virtual meetings,” it reads. “An option for council consideration would be hiring an IT staff person for a two-year contract and reassess the need for longer employment term once the contract has completed.”
Councillors were ultimately supportive of this option, and the county will hire a full-time technician on a two-year contract.

“I don’t want to see a downstream migration of IT and technical support move from the county to municipalities,” said Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin. “. . . I think there’s some operator expertise that your staff has helped evolve a bit [with other municipal staff], but as we migrate back to having committee of council re-engaged, I think it will be critical for the county IT staff to have more personnel.”

While councils have been reconvened for months, advisory committees have not been meeting, and there’s been discussion around most council tables about how to approach the re-establishment of those meetings.

Algonquin Highlands Deputy Mayor and County Warden Liz Danielsen noted that meetings would continue to take place in an online fashion for the foreseeable future. “We know that we are going to be continuing like this for some period of time, we’re also all talking about livestreaming [committee meetings] and everything that’s associated with that.”

Any meetings that take place in the evening will still entail overtime pay for IT staff since those meetings fall outside of work hours contained in their contracts, and Highlands East Mayor Dave Burton suggested the idea of talking to committee members to see if it might be possible to hold meetings during the workday in order to save some money.

“I agree that the needs are growing,” said Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt, “and, similarly to Councillor Burton, I think there’s a conversation that needs to be had about committees. You know, for IT staff, where they’re going to meet, and when they’re going to meet.”

Moffatt noted that not only do many advisory committee meetings take place in the evening, but some take place in far-flung locations.

The cost for a full-time technician for two years, including wages, benefits, overtime allocations, as well as extra equipment and licensing, will be approximately $175,000, according to March’s report.