A Saint John councillor says the city has to restore funding to deal with vacant and rundown properties.
In the last three months, arsonists torched six vacant properties. The latest was Friday on Victoria Street. Seven people were left homeless after the fire spread from the vacant building to their apartments. The Saint John Fire Department has ruled that fire suspicious in nature.
"As you can imagine, people were horrified to be witnessing again another fire," said Donnie Snook, councilor of Ward 3. "One lady came up to me and said ‘Donnie, the only way we can get rid of a vacant building in my neighbourhood is to burn it down’."
'Give people some piece of mind' —Donnie Snook, Saint John Councillor
The city had set aside money to remove 25 derelict buildings a year. But council cut that to just eight in the last budget in an effort to save money and deal with the pension shortfall. Snook said the new council needs to rethink that decision.
"We’ve got a newly elected council and I won’t be shy to bring this issue forward," he said. "Give people some piece of mind, let’s set the bar high again."
Snook estimates the funding cut was $150,000. He compared that to the cost of saving one bus route. He said it's a small amount if it brings people some comfort.
Snook said there is currently an inventory of 100 abandoned buildings in Saint John and the list grows by 10 a year. Some, he said, are considered dangerous and structurally unsound.
He said he’ll be asking council to deal with the issue immediately.
"At the very least, we must recommit to the level of funding originally agreed on by council," he said. "We’ve got to make some decisions here that make sense."
Fire Department warns building owners
Meanwhile, the Saint John Fire Department is trying to reach the owners of the vacant buildings. It wants them to secure their sites to help prevent break-ins by potential arsonists.
Spokesperson Mark Wilson said last week's fire on Victoria Street was dangerous when the flames spread from the empty building to the apartment next door.
"This is a prime example of what happens," he said. "Because a person or persons unknown to us have gotten into these buildings and literally set them on fire - in the middle of the day in this case."
The investigation into the Victoria Street fire has been handed over to the major crimes unit of the Saint John Police Force.