New Brunswick

Smaller Saint John? Moving boundaries among ideas in action plan

The provincial government says it will introduce reforms to assist the City of Saint John through its financial crisis but will not extend emergency funding provided by the former Liberal government.

Province promises to help city, but says there will be no more handouts

Jeff Carr, New Brunswick's minister of local government, talks to reporters following the release of the report Sustaining Saint John. (CBC)

The provincial government says it will introduce reforms to assist the City of Saint John through its financial crisis but will not extend emergency funding provided by the former Liberal government.

That one-time, $22.8 million package expires at the end of 2020.

Local Government Minister Jeff Carr released a report Wednesday titled Sustaining Saint John.

Springing from a working group of provincial and city officials, the document recognizes the city's flat growth rate, the high property taxes required to maintain services, its debt load and other issues.

The province proposes a series of measures including steps to reduce labour costs, reform the binding arbitration process and even determine whether it is possible to adjust the city's boundaries to reduce its size.

The province says it will also review property tax policy, remove the provincial tax on local government public transit facilities, and require outlying communities to share capital costs for regional facilities such as Harbour Station and the Canada Games Aquatic Centre.

Suburbs help with some costs

Outlying municipalities now help pay only for operating costs, leaving the purchase and maintenance costs of the facilities to Saint John.

In another section, the province commits to a review the way regional service commissions have been structured

The city, for its part, has agreed to a series of steps to reduce costs and add revenue. They include an operational audit and hiring an independent consultant to look at the city-owned utility, Saint John Energy, as a way to generate revenue for the municipality.  

Other measures mentioned, such as the creation of a long-term financial plan, have already been implemented. 

A task force has been created to move some or all of the proposals forward. It includes representatives from the city, the province, and the mayors of Saint John's surrounding communities. It held its first meeting in private Wednesday morning.

A special meeting of Saint John council has been scheduled for Thursday evening to discuss and vote on the plan. 

Saint John's mayor and council have scheduled a special meeting Thursday to discuss the 'action items' proposed in the report. (Connell Smith, CBC)

Mayor Don Darling declined comment on the document until the issue is discussed during the meeting.

In a statement he encouraged city residents to read the report, which has been placed on both the province and Saint John's websites.

The report notes that the city expects "operational stresses" in 2021 and 2022 and has requested a "bridging strategy through direct or indirect financial support."

But while promising to reassess the city's financial status, the province makes clear in the report that "no additional provincial funding has been identified."

Speaking to reporters after the release of the report, Local Government Minister Jeff Carr said the province is ready to do its part to help municipalities.
 
"We've approved a lot of these [proposed actions] already through cabinet and through caucus. We're ready to do some heavy lifting."

Sees loss of bargaining power

The action plan talks of reforming the binding arbitration process used when collective bargaining between the city and police or firefighters breaks down, but Bob Davidson, executive director of the New Brunswick Police Association, says some context is required. 

He said the binding arbitration requirement was put in place because police officers lost the right to go on strike.

With only one exception over the past 30 years, collective agreements in Saint John were reached at the bargaining table, Davidson said.

"What they want to do is arbitrarily set wages for police and fire without any fair, independent mechanism whatsoever," he said. "It's government decree."

Would have impact outside city

The report could have far-reaching implications for local governments across the province.

Eugenie Boudreau, acting executive director of the association of francophone municipalities, said the promise to review the property tax system is long overdue and welcomed by her association. 

But she said there are questions about many of the other proposals in the report. 

"It is great for Saint John, it's an interesting plan for them," said Boudreau. "But some measures will affect other municipalities as well and the municipal associations need to be included in the discussions."


 

About the Author

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726 Connell.smith@cbc.ca

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