Saint John serves up 'Budgets and Beer' event to engage citizens in finance talks
Sold-out event Wednesday night prompts 2nd one slated for July 23
Saint John's finances can be a dry topic for some people, but on Wednesday night Mayor Don Darling and Coun. David Merrithew will pair it with a refreshing beverage.
The City Budgets and Beers town hall event is all about engagement, said Merrithew, the chair of the city's finance committee. And the fact that it's already sold out is encouraging, he said.
"Beer, I understand that side of it, OK. The budget side, I didn't quite. So again pleasantly surprised that people want to get engaged and boy, we sure need them."
About 40 civic-minded people will gather at UStation on Prince William Street to talk about the city's dire financial situation, including a projected operating deficit of $12 million by 2021, and possibly come up with some solutions.
Because of demand, a second event will be held July 23 at 5:30 p.m, at the BMO Studio Theatre at 112 Princess St., and two more are in the works. Pre-registration is required.
The meetings come as the city and province struggle to reach an agreement on municipal reform.
Earlier this month, Darling spoke against a package of reforms the province offered in a report titled Sustaining Saint John. The majority of council looked ready to reject it, but Coun. Donna Reardon made a last-minute tabling motion.
"We've got some ideas how we could take that forward and, you know, we want to extend [the] conversation and engage the public, let them know what's going on," said Merrithew.
We need the other side of the balance sheet, we need that income side. We need municipal reform — have to have it.- David Merrithew, city councillor, chair of finance committee
In promoting the Budgets and Beer event on social media, Darling pledged a "transparent and open conversation" about the city's future.
"There is no greater stakeholder in our future than a citizen. You deserve to know the details," he tweeted.
Merrithew contends the city has "done a pretty good job lately," making some tough cuts, and he acknowledged more will be needed. But "we can't cut our way to prosperity," he said.
"We need the other side of the balance sheet, we need that income side. We need municipal reform — have to have it."
Merrithew cited Saint John Energy as one possible revenue source. As it stands, the city owns the utility but gets no dividends from it, he said.
By comparison, EPCOR in Edmonton pays the municipality "hundreds of millions of dollars," Merrithew said.
He also wants to talk about taxation.
"It's my personal belief that whether there is enough tax paid by all entities, the City of Saint John doesn't get its fair share."
He plans to share, for example, the assessed value of the hospital and the taxes it pays, compared to the assessed values of the Irving Oil refinery, liquefied natural gas terminal and two pulp mills, which he said combined are less than that of the hospital.
"When people learn those facts and figures perhaps, you know, they'll take it forward for us as well" to their MLA or MP, he said.
Merrithew said he's looking forward to a "back and forth conversation" and public input.
The province's report proposed a series of measures, including steps to reduce labour costs, reform the binding arbitration process and determine whether it's possible to adjust the city's boundaries to reduce its size.
The province also said it would review the 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.
With files from Information Morning Saint John