The mayor of Saint John is being blunt when it comes to the significance of 2019, calling it a “make-or-break” year for the city.
“I’ll be very direct: it’s broken,” said Mayor Don Darling, in reference to the way in which the city is currently operating.
“We’re going to fix it and we need a radical restructuring.”
Darling’s comments come less than 24 hours after Saint John common council passed the city’s 2019 operating budget, which includes the same stable property tax rate of $1.78 per $100 of assessment as 2018. It’s the 11th straight year for that tax rate, which remains the highest in New Brunswick.
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However, next year’s operating budget doesn’t necessarily paint an accurate snapshot of the city’s ongoing fiscal situation. The 2019 budget contains more than $7 million from the province as part of a three-year, $22-million assistance package announced in February.
Without that cash infusion, Saint John’s immediate situation would have been much more dire.
One of the key milestones in 2019 will be the release of a report from a working group of municipal and provincial officials that outlines both revenue-generating and cost-cutting options. Darling says it needs to be substantial, adding that provincial participation is essential.
“The City of Saint John has to roll its sleeves up and make some pretty substantial changes, and we’re all in. We’re ready to go,” explained Darling. “But we need the provincial government to be partners with us, hand in hand.”
Darling points to what he says are 11 barriers the city is facing. They include a need for more flexible collective agreements, concerns over infrastructure and changes to the labour arbitration process and the city’s pension situation.
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Taxation reform is also seen as an important item for municipalities — and something the government of Premier Blaine Higgs says it takes seriously.
“We are committed to municipal tax reform and wanting to give communities more autonomy,” said Dorothy Shephard, MLA for Saint John Lancaster and provincial Minister of Social Development.
“Not just for Saint John but for all municipalities of New Brunswick so that they can take some of their destiny into their own hands.”
The Saint John business community also understands the current fiscal realities but feels there are reasons for optimism.
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“Look at the reports from the (Saint John) Real Estate Board: there’s some growth in that area,” said David Duplisea, CEO of the Saint John Region Chamber of Commerce.
“There is growth in employment in the area. We’re seeing new companies come in so it’s not all doom and gloom.”
The working group report is expected to be released in January.