New Brunswick

Saint John considers wage freeze, cuts and fees to tackle $11M deficit

Closing down an arena, reducing winter snow removal and charging fees for police and fire responses are three of about 60 ideas Saint John is considering to address its $11 million deficit.

Proposed cuts span city services as well as support for recreation and cultural life

On Monday night, Saint John council heard about 60 ideas for cuts, fees and program restructuring to address the city's $11 million deficit. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Closing down an arena, reducing winter snow removal and charging fees for police and fire responses are three of about 60 ideas Saint John is considering to address its $11 million deficit. 

At Monday night's council meeting, city manager John Collin, said it will take more than cuts to fix the city's finances by 2021-22, when a financial assistance from the province will have run out.

Tolls on city roads, selling the Canada Games Aquatic Centre, charging an event and entertainment levy, and staff wage freezes are also on the table.

The proposals come three months after Mayor Don Darling called for a financial restructuring plan to get the city on the road to financial stability. The deficit is expected to reach $12 million by 2021.

Council will have to decide which cuts and fees to approve in the next 60 days, when they pass the next budget. 

Fears impact on poor

The ideas that inspired the most ire from councillors Monday were "transit redesign" and reducing funding to community centres.

Coun. David Hickey asked if the proposed cuts and fees — if approved — would disproportionately affect people with lower incomes.

"The people using the services the most get hurt the most," Hickey said. "I don't want to squash the momentum of this community."

But Collin said there are ways to mitigate the harm.

"I think it would be premature to characterize that our more challenged families will bear the brunt of this," he said.

Saint John Mayor Don Darling says councillors have a tough job in the next 60 days as they decide which cuts, service changes and fees should be implemented. (CBC)

Darling said the ideas go too far in some areas and not far enough in others. 

"We need to restructure, we have a cost problem," he said.

He said provincial reforms, the city's historic lack of cost control and focus on growth have also contributed to the city being in this position.

Darling said it would be "fiscally irresponsible" to wait until 2021 to freeze wages, and he wants the issue tackled in 2020. 

"I think what you saw tonight is a very real snapshot, so even if our employees, highly respected employees, agree to a wage freeze, that's still just $2 million," he said.

May ask province for more

The city has $10 million left from the province for short-term financial support. Council is considering sending a letter to the province asking for $10 million over 2020 and 2021 to "take the edge off," Darling said.

However, that would not help in the long run unless there's "serious restructuring," he said.

He said that budget should bring "as much balance as possible."

"It'll be up to this council supported by our staff over the next 60 to 70 days to show whether we're going to demonstrate the right leadership or not," he said.

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