Saint John's service cuts likely to continue as coronavirus-related costs pile up
Revenue losses from COVID-19 come as city already faces $10M deficit in 2021
The City of Saint John is facing a financial hit related to COVID-19 of between $5 million and $12 million this year and is taking aim at cuts to everything from flower planting to lawn mowing.
The COVID-19 costs would come in advance of an already projected $10 million deficit in 2021 the city has spent several months preparing for.
The projections were laid out Wednesday evening during a virtual meeting of city council's finance committee.
The COVID-19 crisis is projected to drive down municipal revenue from such things as parking meters, transit fares, building permits, ice rink rentals and hotel room levies.
Saint John Water is also expecting to lose as much as $3.3 million from metered commercial customers if the crisis continues to the end of December.
"Municipal governments are exposed," said finance commissioner Kevin Fudge, in describing the list of financial impacts. "We are not immune to this event."
In response, the city's finance committee has recommended a "cost mitigation" plan that will see a series of service reductions ranging from a suspension of maintenance at parks, playgrounds, splash pads and beaches, a 25 per cent cut in operating costs at Saint John Transit, no flower planting and reduced grass mowing.
Major facilities like TD Station, the Canada Games Aquatic Centre and the Trade and Convention Centre will remain closed. There will also be reduced enforcement for zoning and bylaw infractions.
In late March, the city laid off 15 casual employees and suspended plans to fill 100 casual and summer student positions this spring.
City manager John Collin attributed some of the service cuts to the provincial government's mandatory order, which says only essential services are to continue.
But there is evidence New Brunswick municipalities are interpreting what constitutes an essential service differently.
On Tuesday, Fredericton Coun. Stephen Chase posted a photograph on Twitter of a city sidewalk sweeper at work.
"Nice to see our crews cleaning up sand deposits on sidewalks," wrote Chase. "Thank you!!"
Coun. Greg Norton wants to know why Saint John streets and sidewalks are not getting the same treatment. Such steps, he said, will make the city more attractive to investors.
"Why aren't we cleaning the streets right now when traffic is at an all-time low?" asked Norton. "Those optics are poor when somebody's looking at what Fredericton's doing in street sweeping."
Norton told CBC provincial highway crews are also sweeping highway on and off ramps in the Fredericton area.
City manager John Collin was unmoved by the argument.
"I'm sorry, right now I cannot justify street sweeping or the painting of lines as a critical service," said Collin.
Collin cautioned the city will likely face additional financial challenges related to the COVID-19 crisis in the form of lost lease revenue from tenants at Market Square.
He also said the municipality could be put into a situation where investment is required to assist with Saint John's economic recovery.