Saint John council delays vote on financial sustainability report for 30 days
Saint John council’s most important vote in recent memory has been held off for another 30 days.
On Thursday night, councillors gathered for a special session of common council to debate the report from the joint working group on financial sustainability, before deciding whether to accept or reject it.
After more than two hours of discussion, councillor Donna Reardon proposed to table the vote for 30 days to allow for the city and province to address some of the concerns heard at the meeting. After a tie vote, Mayor Don Darling voted in favour of the motion.
“There was a lot of passion around the room tonight, a lot of shared perspectives if you will, and I think it’s an opportunity to pause. We were either going to accept this report tonight or we were going to reject the report,” Darling told reporters after the session.
“So I think it’s an opportunity to pause now over 30 days to see if the parties can come back together to address any of the areas of concern.”
The report, entitled ‘Sustaining Saint John: A Three-Part Plan,’ listed 20 action items to be accomplished by both the city and the province, along with the establishment of a regional task force that is given a mandate to find opportunities for cost sharing in the region and a requirement that the province reassess the city’s financial situation in the spring of 2020.
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Included in the action plan were promises to look at property tax reform, changes that would allow the city to begin seeing profits from Saint John Energy, as well as an operational audit and binding arbitration reform.
But a common theme emerged around the council table on Thursday night. All councillors agreed that there was a lot in the report to like and a lot that the city had specifically asked for, but there were some that felt there was nothing to address the large structural deficits the city is facing over the next three budgets.
“There are some good things in this report, there’s no question about that. But there’s a lot of reviews and changes to arbitration and tax reform, changes to legislation, and they’re all in there saying well we may do those down the road because they take time and they’re not done as of yet,” said deputy mayor Shirley McAlary.
“And we haven’t got that time. We have enough money to last us until the end of 2020 and that’s it. We haven’t got enough money to balance our budget in 2021. So that’s the bottom line and that’s why we’re all here tonight.
“There’s a number of good things that come out of this, but the expectation that I had was that we would find common ground so that between now and 2023 the city wouldn’t collapse and I think what I’m seeing now is there’s no common ground there,” said Ward 2 councillor John MacKenzie.
“There’s a two-year gap where we can’t meet the budgetary needs of this city that go unrecognized in this report. So there are two decisions we’re faced with. We can accept the report and say well we have these reservations and their big ones,” said David Hickey, who represents Ward 3.
“Or we can say, we’re not accepting your support because of these reservations.”
Others felt that it would be foolish to reject a plan with so much that the city had asked for.
“There’s nothing bad in this report. There is nothing in this report that hurts the city of Saint John,” said councillor at large Gary Sullivan.
“I agree, half the items in this report we’re working and we’ve been working, but that’s what it should be, it should be a partnership. We should be working on our half and we’re going to have to work on our half whether we endorse this report or not.”
“I can tell you if I’m moving a sofa in my living room, I want help on the other end and that’s what we have here tonight. We have help on the other side,” said Ward 1 councillor Greg Norton.
New Brunswick’s minister of the environment and local governments Jeff Carr says that the 30-day pause could be positive for both sides, but that the legislative changes being asked for in the short-term often take a significant amount of time to accomplish.
“We heard tonight six different ways at least in which the city says they need eight more million dollars. That can happen through property tax reform and machinery tax reform, whatever you want to call it. Legislative changes take time, they can take at least maybe a year on things like this,” he told reporters after the meeting.
“Many statutes have to change, whether it’s property tax reform, whether it’s municipal reform, even if you’re changing boundaries, simple boundaries to a city, it takes a long time.”
Carr made it clear that no more provincial subsidies, like the $22 million agreement reached by the city and the previous government, and that it is up to the city to endure what could be some hard times in the next few years so that they can enjoy the dividends of the legislative changes the province would like to implement.
“No longer will the province hand out money that we don’t have,” he said.
“It’s not a matter of always giving money we don’t have. I understand the city has to make some different decisions. Short-term pain for long-term gain.”
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