Saint John proposes major cuts, asks for help from province and neighbours
Proposal would see added levy on tax bill for people in suburban communities
The City of Saint John is considering sweeping reforms that would slash jobs, cut services and increase fees.
The plan also calls on the province to make major property tax reforms for heavy industry, and on suburban communities to pay more to assist the city.
The goal of the proposed reforms is to erase anticipated $10 million deficits in 2021 and 2022 and put the city on track for property tax reductions to bring rates in line with those of Moncton.
Saint John has struggled with rising costs for much of the past decade while assessment growth remained relatively flat.
Among the recommended "workforce adjustments" would be what city manager John Collin calls a "significant" reduction at the police force, a $1.3 million cut to the fire department's labour costs, and a nearly $1 million cut to the works department. Cuts would also be made to the casual workforce.
One city rink would be closed, street maintenance would be reduced, and $750,000 would be removed from the public transit budget.
On the revenue side the plan calls for a long list of added or increased fees.
They would include a levy on monthly parking bills for non-residents and the introduction of heavy vehicle permits that would generate at least $1 million for the municipality annually.
Taxing outlying communities
The plan hinges in part on the provincial government's readiness to allow the city to collect an initial $6 million annually from outlying communities either through road tolls or, more likely, through a special property tax levy.
The levy would add an estimated $265 a year to the average household property tax bill in suburban communities.
In exchange for the added tax, the Regional Facilities Commission would be abandoned along with non-resident user fees.
City manager John Collin says the tax for suburban residents is justified by a consultant's report - commissioned by the province - which says the city's role as a regional hub adds an estimated $12 million in costs for such things as emergency services and road maintenance.
The report also estimates the city loses $32 million a year because residential property values have been depressed by the presence of heavy industry.
It says another $4 million is spent on emergency response preparedness and road maintenance related to those industries.
"We have undebatable, quantifiable data that show that we are out of pocket," said Collin.
The industry money would be delegated to lowering the property tax rate.
Possible utility sale?
The city has also commissioned a report on the worth of Saint John Energy, the municipally owned electric utility, to see if it can be used as a money generator.
Collin told council an unsolicited offer has recently been made for the purchase of the company.
The deal would potentially see a three-year rate freeze on the understanding price increases thereafter would be regulated with rates resembling those of NB Power.
Collin said the money made from the sale would generate a dividend of $2 million to $5 million for the city.
Saint John Energy's estimated value has not been revealed.
An appeal to neighbouring communities
Council is expected to vote on the proposals in the plan at their May 4 meeting.
Mayor Don Darling called on outlying communities to come on board.
"We must come together as a region to collaborate and reset our approach," said Darling.
"To the 60 thousand people outside of Saint John, invest one dollar a day in coming together so that we can thrive and grow. I'm a believer that when we look back five years from now it will be the best dollar you've ever invested."