New Brunswick

Audit says Saint John is in much better shape financially

The City of Saint John's debt has dropped to less than half the 2018 total, to about $159 million, according to the audited financial statements for 2021 brought forward at Monday’s council meeting.

2021 books show city ran surplus, has lower debt and a substantial reserve

The City of Saint John is in far better shape financially than in previous years, with a surplus in 2021 and a net debt less than half what it was in 2018. (Julia Wright/CBC file photo)

It appears the City of Saint John's financial situation continues to improve after years of debt crisis.

In 2018, the city's net debt was just over $330 million, and Saint John was in a position where balancing its budget was increasingly difficult.

But according to the audited financial statements for 2021 brought forward at Monday's council meeting, that debt has dropped to less than half the 2018 total, at about $159 million.

Coun. Gary Sullivan, the head of the finance committee, told council Monday night the numbers show the plan is working.

Coun. Gary Sullivan is chair of Saint John's finance committee. (City of Saint John)

"The most important note at the end of the day is, following the financial plan we have has us so we're not going hat in hand to the provincial government anymore looking for backstop," Sullivan said.

"We're able to plan moving forward and then we can make choices about the projects that we want to do to continue to move the city forward."

The general fund operating budget for 2021 shows a surplus of $1.75 million during a year that saw increased costs because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As well, there was more than $3.5 million in COVID relief payments and $2.6 million in increased property taxes, plus a few other unexpected windfalls.

Most of that money was moved to reserve funds, increasing the city's reserves to more than $33 million, "which is good because in 2015 we had almost no reserves," Sullivan said.

Saint John Water also ended up with a surplus of about $1.5 million.

"Of course, it wouldn't be a financial update with all this good news if it doesn't come with the 'But,'" Sullivan said.

"Here's the 'But' — we still have $111 million of debt that needs to be repaid over the next five years.

"And we still are in 'infrastructure deficit,' which means our assets are surpassing their useful life faster than we are replacing them."

Even so, it's a big change for a city that was only recently looking for ways to cut its budget year-after-year, by as much as $10 million.

Sullivan's suggestion that the improved financial position has created a situation where council and staff can concentrate on future plans seemed to prove true at last night's meeting.

City staff presented three major projects to council: A 10-year strategic plan, a proposal to transform Saint John transit, and the final update on the new solid waste management plan, which includes curbside recycling.

Sullivan said the city is now in a position to face issues such as inflation or a potential housing bubble.

"If we didn't have a financial plan, it would be 'The sky is falling, what do we do?' Let's keep following the plan. We're seeing the good work that comes out of it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steven Webb

Producer

Steven Webb is a producer for CBC based in Saint John.

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