Minister sides with suburbs in rejecting Saint John proposals for sharing
City needs to rein in expenses, says Local Government Minister Jeff Carr
Local Government Minister Jeff Carr says Saint John has to make some tough decisions before the city's neighbours will be ready to talk more about sharing costs.
"The message is clear from the outlying areas," said Carr. "They want to help, they want to continue to partner but they have to see a little movement by Saint John council."
Carr's comments to CBC News came the day after the minister sent a letter to city council in response to a long-term sustainability plan released by the city.
Among other things, the plan proposes a levy on the property tax bills in outlying communities that would increase the amount of assistance the city's neighbours now provide, and to offset costs incurred by Saint John as a regional hub.
We can no longer continue to pick winners and losers so everybody has to be treated fairly in that regard.- Jeff Carr, local government minister
But the minister wrote he would not reconvene a regional management task force that had been looking into cost-sharing with Saint John until the city "has demonstrated substantial and measurable progress" on sustainability.
As part of an "action plan" for Saint John jointly released by the city and province in July 2019, the provincial government paid for an operational review of city operations by consultants Ernst and Young.
It identified $25 million — $35 million in what it described as opportunities for the city to save costs or generate new revenue.
"There are millions and millions and millions of dollars identified by Ernst and Young in the report," said Carr. "So there's lots of opportunities there that the city can take, as well as having a look at their expenses they've raised over the last three years."
The proposals in the consultant's report include major reorganizations and cuts in areas such as the Fire Department, where it suggests 32 to 40 firefighter positions could be eliminated along with the closing of a fire station and the retiring of two engines and two tankers.
It suggests 20 per cent of the police department's patrol strength could be converted into civilian jobs and identifies further potential job reductions at Saint John Water and at Public Works and Recreation.
The city is also asking the province for fundamental changes to the property tax system, particularly where heavy industry is concerned.
As an interim measure the municipality is hoping the province will turn over its portion of the tax collected from Saint John industries — about $8 million annually — until those reforms are introduced in 2022.
But Carr is clear the province won't be handing over the industrial tax revenue in advance of the reforms.
"If we hand over industrial tax to one city, why wouldn't we hand it over to all? We can no longer continue to pick winners and losers so everybody has to be treated fairly in that regard," said the minister.
On Monday night, city council approved a series of measures to trim costs by $10 million in 2021 and 2022 by cutting six million from workforce costs, closing a rink, raising fees and cutting back on other services, such lawn mowing and flower planting.
Saint John councillor David Hickey described Carr's response as "disheartening."
"We can't pretend, I think, that this was a case of Saint John missing deadlines or not taking significant steps to restructure because based on the plan that both the province and the city agreed to in our sustainability plan, the city has met all of our requirements," said Hickey.