Recreation programs under threat in Saint John
Skating rink, lawn bowling and playground programs could be on way out
Saint John councillors spent much of a four-hour meeting on Monday arguing potential program cuts to deal with a budget crisis forecast for 2021.
In the end they decided to leave several recreation programs on a list for potential cuts or elimination.
They include an outdoor skating rink at Rainbow Park in the south end, an end to maintenance of a lawn bowling facility in a west side park, and the suspension of structured summer playground activities now serving over 400 children citywide.
A city staff report notes the loss of the $90,000 playground program would have an impact on low-income families and could determine whether immigrants with children choose to remain in the city.
A total of 60 programs or service areas are potentially on the block as part of the review.
City manager John Colin says last night's vote gave councillors an opportunity to remove some of the programs from the chopping block before a final vote in March.
"I believe all 60-plus ideas are to a degree, unpalatable," said Colin. "And I would simply remind council that there's approximately $15 million worth of ideas for $11 million of deficit."
It is expected the cuts will have to be implemented by the end of next year when a special $22-million provincial financial aid package expires.
While councillors agreed to leave several of the programs "in the hopper" for potential elimination or cuts, they drew the line at a proposal to end a $37,000 annual lifeguard service at Rockwood Park's Fisher Lakes.
"This isn't a quality of life [issue], this is a safety issue for me," said Coun. Gary Sullivan.
Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary also cautioned councillors against lifeguard cuts.
"I can say in all my years on council, every time we cut lifeguard services, we have to come back and reinstate it," she said.
On another finance-related front, councillors passed a motion calling on the provincial government to amend the Industrial Relations Act to have arbitrators include consideration of "local realities and financial pressures," including a municipality's ability to pay, when making salary contract settlements in binding arbitration cases.
Councillors hope the motion, which passed unanimously, will curb higher than average wage increases awarded to police and fire responders who do not have the right to strike.
Councillors also refused to authorize a structured series of water and sewerage rate increases that had been planned for the next decade.
They would have seen the annual water and sewerage bill for residential customers climb from $1,428 today to just under $1,800 in 2029.
The financial crisis even affected one of the few non-budget items discussed on Monday — a motion that will require distributors of advertising flyers to deliver only to those homes that have "opted in."
City manager Colin said the new bylaw will likely take six months or longer to implement because his staff are too busy dealing with issues related to the city's financial sustainability.