Saint John faces revised city budget

Saint John taxpayers are expected to get a glimpse Monday night of a new city budget common council is considering that cuts $9 million from programs and services across the board.

Details of $9M in cuts expected to be unveiled at Monday's meeting

Saint John taxpayers are expected to get a glimpse Monday night of a new city budget common council is considering that cuts $9 million from programs and services across the board.

More than 50 jobs could be on the chopping block, along with grants to community groups, and planned raises for managers.

Although council discussed the proposed budget over the weekend, it has not yet been adopted.

It's tentatively scheduled to be made public at Monday's regularly scheduled meeting. But it will likely be another week before council takes a final vote on the so-called Revised Plan B budget, said Deputy Mayor Stephen Chase.

He said he got his fellow council members to agree during the heated weekend meeting to give the public a week to absorb the new budget before the vote.

The weekend meeting was scheduled to be held behind closed doors, but Chase lead a successful push to keep it open.

"Really today was the first time we had an open debate on this budget. That was a result of myself protesting and leaving the meeting," Chase told reporters after the meeting.

When council voted on the motion to hold the meeting in private, the vote was tied, with four in favour and four against. Chase mistakenly thought he had lost his bid to keep the meeting open and walked out in protest.

But the tie meant the motion to go into committee of the whole had actually failed, so the meeting was technically public. The problem was there weren't any members of the public in attendance.

Coun. Mel Norton tweeted about the meeting and several people, including firefighters, showed up and packed into the small boardroom on the eighth floor of City Hall.

It's unclear how many people tried to attend but were unable to get in because the elevators of City Hall are shut down on weekends and require an employee identification card to operate.

Chase returned to the meeting when someone emailed him to say that it was open.

Council had initially been looking at a $143-million budget for 2012 that maintains the tax rate and avoids major service cuts.

But that original budget was based on the principle that the provincial legislature would approve several changes to the city employees' pension plan, such as cuts to cost-of-living increases, to help deal with the plan's $163 million deficit.

If the legislature doesn't approve the necessary changes, the city has to come up with an extra $9 million.

Council had a backup, so-called Plan B budget, which was discussed over the weekend. But council has now asked the city manager Pat Woods to prepare a revised version.

It cuts $8 million from operations and $1 million from the water and sewerage budget.

"Council is not interested in cutting life guards," said Chase.

"We want to continue with the proposed fire service reduction, but no more than that - what's already been proposed," he said, referring to trimming the fire department's budget to $23.2 million, down from $23.7 million last year.

Paul Stackhouse, the president of the Saint John Firefighters' Association, has said the two-per-cent cut will put an engine company out of service on the city's east side and will result in the loss of up to 24 personnel.

The police department could also lose some positions, said Chase. And city managers, who were scheduled to get a raise after agreeing a two-year wage freeze, likely won't.

"There is going to be some reductions in some community grants," added Chase. "Hopefully we can reinstate them when we achieve pension reform."