Saint John’s public safety budget often comes under intense scrutiny when politicians discuss the city’s financial struggles.

The city's finances are being questioned as it struggles to avoid a potential tax hike. Saint John has a significant pension deficit that it's trying to pay down.

Coun. Gary Sullivan said this week that a tax hike is not an option, instead savings would need to be made by reducing spending in other areas.

While the budgets of the police and fire departments account for 37 per cent of the city’s overall budget, the two services may be difficult to cut because of the city’s unique traits.

The fire department’s annual budget is $22.3 million and the police service costs an additional $22.3 million.

The fire department employs 156 full-time firefighters and another 19 part-time staff to serve 68,000 people.

Kevin Clifford, the city’s fire chief, said the department has been studied carefully by outside experts who have determined that every one of his firefighters is needed.

He said he expects the scrutiny and is prepared to justify the size of the department.

St. John’s, N.L., is often used as a comparison to Saint John. It is a port city and also has an older stock of houses.

Mike Dwyer, the director of the St. John's Regional Fire Department, said his crews are responsible for a population of 150,000 people. His department has 164 firefighters, eight more than Saint John.

"Everything seems to be working fairly well," Dwyer said.

But Saint John is not like St. John's.

Clifford points out that Saint John has the country's largest oil refinery, a nuclear reactor and rural areas that already take far too long to get to for firefighters.

The National Fire Protection Association sets national guidelines for first responders to get to the emergency situation. The standards say first responders should be on scene in four to six minutes.

Saint John aims to get to emergency scenes in five and a half minutes.

The fire department is unable to hit the targets more than 20 per cent of the time.

"When you look at our Loch Lomond Station and our west side station the response times there could get as high as eight, nine, 10 and 11 minutes," Clifford said.

Many other cities in Saint John's population range spend a lot less on their fire departments, however.

Kamloops, B.C., has a population of 80,000 and 125 firefighters with a budget of $13.3 million and Sault Ste. Marie has a population of 74,000 and 102 firefighters with a budget of $15.5 million.

When police budgets are examined, Saint John’s $22-million budget and 160 member force is in line with others across Canada.

Prince George, B.C., has 121 officers and a budget of $20.1 million and Sarnia, Ont., has 112 officers and a $19 million budget.

The figures suggest that police salaries in Saint John are higher than in other cities across the country, but the budget for the size of its population seems pretty much in line with the national average.

Fire Department comparisons
City Population served Firefighters Budget
St. John's Regional, N.L. 150,000 164 $23,274,000
Kamloops, B.C. 80,000 125 $13,300,000
Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. 74,900 102 $12,140,000
Sarnia, Ont. 71,000 131 $15,500,000
Saint John 68,000 156 $22,300,000