The Long Goodbye

By John Swartz

For many years the standard greeting between this writer and the City of Orillia’s treasurer has been, “have we got any money left?”

The standard answer has been, ”No.”

This is how the conversation begins with Jim Lang whose retirement was announced during the council meeting Monday. This time, however, Lang doesn’t have a flippant answer.

“Wow. How do I answer that?” he said. “I expect that right off the top,”

He’s not gone yet, but the window is closing on his 30 year career with the City, 35 years in total as a municipal employee.

“I came from a town called Wingham,” Lang said. When asked about the changes he’s experienced since embarking on his journey, the obvious question was, did the adding machines have crank handles back then?

“When I came here, we did not have a big crank machine, but we had a computer system that took a good part of a room, a reel to reel tape as our storage unit, instead of these hard drives and cloud systems that keep billions of pieces of data.”

At about the same time Lang arrived in Orillia, this writer was working in accounting for a multinational – where data entry was still using punch cards.

“We did not have punch cards here. As I recall, it had 4 terminals and by that point data entry was done a more traditional keyboard, but it looked like something out of Star Trek,” said Lang.

It was still a leap forward from the job as deputy treasurer/clerk in Wingham.

“One of my most important jobs was as the accountant for the municipality (Wingham) and back then that town was still on a manual paper system. So my really important job was, we had a walk-in vault like a bank vault and that’s where we stored the accounts. I would carry out a big corduroy, cloth-bound general ledger and it was my duty to make all the entries into that.”

As computers took over more the menial work, the abundance of time left was filled with new roles.

“The complexity of the work has increased many times over. When you say less work, without a doubt, all those keypunchers, we don’t have that position anymore, but in its place you’ll see more analysis type positions, crunching all the numbers and the data to deal more in projections and analysis and understanding,” said Lang.

In this century, the treasury department is often asked to find ways to come up with the money to allow council to move their agendas. The most recent example is found in a report earlier this week outlining how council could issue debentures for new LED street lights rather than fund the $2.4 million price tag from the capital tax levy. The report showed Orillia has a much lighter debt load, and at $6 million, a far lighter debt load than most municipalities n Ontario and could accommodate new debt without beginning to approach even 5% of provincial limits.

“The sophistication of the level of knowledge and understanding of strategic financial decisions, in my mind has increased very significantly over the years. That takes a much deeper understanding of those strategic decisions,”

Of course long gone are the days when the most important matter of a balance sheet was only the colour of the last line. Not only does the treasurer have to keep council happy, both higher levels of government require detailed accounting – not just for how grants are used, but also details on how all municipal spending is accounted for.

“The legislation is much more complex, the reporting requirement much more complex. Our audit was much simpler back then, there were much fewer rules and regulations.”

For now Lang is still on the job, with one eye on the clock.

“My last regular day is August 31st, but I fully expect with the disruption that COVID has caused, everyone’s plans are being delayed or set on hold, so I’ll be probably around here until the end of the year anyways.”

Amanpreet Singh Sidhu

Just this week council approved hiring Amanpreet Singh Sidhu for the newly created position of general manager of corporate services/city solicitor which is the top of the department realignment chain which includes the treasury, clerks, and real estate departments and IT. Sidhu comes from Midland where he was the interim chief administration officer/director of corporate services/town solicitor of the municipality. He starts July 21.

Lang does not know if the title of treasurer, which is one of only two municipal positions mandated by provincial legislation, is one Sidhu will have, or if someone else will be hired.

“There’s different ways that can be delivered, but that has not been determined. That will be one of the many first jobs the new general manager will have,” said Lang.  “

What will Lang do once he escapes City Hall?

“I am useless at home repairs, so that is not in the forecast. I’ve got many things I’ll be wanting to do. I’m a canoer and a hiker, so definitely we’ll be hitting the trails more often and we have a couple of grandkids we’ll enjoy, some travelling,” said Lang.

He has grown attached to this place and doesn’t see any immediate change of address.

“I recall when I applied for the job and accepted a call for an interview; I had to look up Orillia on the map to see where it was. I recall, “Oh, that’s that little city on the way up to cottage country.””

“I don’t say that I have any roots, but Orillia we have lived in for 30 years and we live in Orillia. We have been quite happy to make our home here.”

“We have some family here. That’s down the road and we haven’t looked at that, we have no imminent plans anyway to move away,” said Lang.

(Photos Supplied)

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