Alward worried over economy, demographic issues

Premier David Alward said two issues are keeping him awake at night: the province's economy and the aging population.

Premier David Alward told a public meeting on Monday night that New Brunswick’s aging population and its deepening fiscal crisis are keeping him awake at night.

Alward appeared with Finance Minister Blaine Higgs at a pre-budget meeting in his riding of Woodstock.

The premier said he's worried about the fiscal hole the province has dug for itself and the demographic challenges facing the provincial government in the coming years.

"It takes 12 to 13 people who make $20,000 a year to pay the same amount of tax of somebody who makes $70,000 a year," he said.

The premier said his government will announce new economic development measures in the coming weeks to target job creation in high-paying industries.

As a first step, Alward is in Saint John on Tuesday for an economic development initiative.

The Woodstock meeting was the latest stop in the annual pre-budget consultation tour. There's another meeting on Tuesday morning in St. Stephen for invited stakeholders, and more public sessions Tuesday night in Fredericton and Wednesday in Edmundston.

Union officials question decisions

There were about 125 people at Monday’s pre-budget session to listen to the premier and finance minister's presentation.

Some of the speakers at the pre-budget meeting were union officials representing provincial organizations.

Norma Robinson, the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1252, said there is no room left for the provincial government to cut in the health system.

Robinson was critical of the provincial government’s decisions to trim health spending last year. She again raised those concerns with Higgs during the meeting in Woodstock.

"Currently within health care, you gave the instructions for departments to reduce their spending, even though the health authorities were under budget. They were still instructed to cut," Robinson said.

"What this has created is a ripple down effect of individuals losing their jobs and going home at the end of the day. Minister Higgs you and I have had this conversation that you didn’t want to see people go home, well they are. Individuals are being laid off and being called in on a casual basis when work is available for them."

Robinson also noted that a reduction in hours at community health centres has increased wait times at urban emergency rooms.

Higgs said at the meeting that the hospital system hasn't had a base budget review in 12 years.

Transportation concerns

The premier and finance minister were also grilled by union officials who represent snowplow operators.

Andy Hardy, an official with the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1190, said provincial snowplow drivers can do a better job than private companies in maintaining highways.

Hardy said the provincial government is considering cuts to civil service contract items such as severance and pensions.

The union official said he wonders if they're willing to do the same for public-private partnerships.

"These contracts – and I heard you say that of the capital budget $544 million this year is going to Route 1, ok, and it really doesn’t concern me who signed the deal, it is bad deal just like the MRDC deal and the Brunway deal," Hardy said.

"They are all bad deals and we are paying through the teeth for them,"

Hardy said the provincial government is paying private companies $28 million to maintain 235 kilometres of highway.

The province’s finance minister said he has asked for an evaluation of P3 contracts to ensure the provincial government is getting value for money.