New year to bring in service cuts as Saint John's budget shrinks

Saint John councillors approved a budget that holds the property tax rate but sets the stage for layoffs and service reductions in 2018.

Last minute letter from Premier Brian Gallant offers help to the city

Saint John's fire and police departments are bracing for cuts in the new year after city councillors approved the 2018 budget. (Submitted by Joseph Comeau)

Saint John councillors approved a budget that holds the property tax rate but sets the stage for layoffs and service reductions in 2018.

Revenue from property taxation has been virtually flat since 2013, while a decline in population has led to a $3.6 million reduction in the the city's annual grant from the province.

Overall the municipality's $152 million 2018 budget is $1.4 million lower than the current year.

"We find ourselves in what is referred to as a structural deficit," said city manager Jeff Trail, who is pushing a plan to cut city expenses by 12.5 per cent over the next three years. This is a move he expects would make a property tax reduction possible.

Next year's share will see the police and fire department budgets reduced by $1.25 million each.

Impact on city services

A half million dollar reduction will be made to public transit and smaller amounts in nearly every other city department.

As a result, questions remain about the impact cuts will have to services.

"Will we have community policing? I'm not sure of that," said Shirley McAlary, the city's deputy mayor, who voted against the budget package.

"Will we have enough fire equipment or people to go to a fire?"

Saint John Councillor Gerry Lowe, City Manager Jeff Trail and Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary. 6:51

Those concerns were echoed by Peter Alexander, president of the Saint John Firefighters Association.

"We don't know what our new response model's going to be come January 1st," he said.  "That's just criminal."

Police union head, Duane Squires said in a management briefing, that officers were told earlier that street crime, traffic and community response units could be eliminated if the budget was approved.

City department heads will be expected to present plans for dealing with the cuts including any potential for staff reductions through attrition.

No incentives will be offered to those close to retirement.

Province steps in

In a surprise development Saint John Mayor Don Darling received a letter Friday afternoon from New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant.

The letter offered unspecified help to the city.

"We want to work with you so you can avoid cuts to front-line services and you have my guarantee that the province will work with you towards short term assistance for investments in a growth agenda while we continue to work shoulder to shoulder on a new deal for Saint John," wrote Gallant.

Bob Davidson of the Police Association claimed the letter was accompanied by an offer of $3.5 million in provincial assistance, but the document makes no mention of money.

"There's no dollar figures involved," said Darling. "It's a commitment from the premier, a letter signed from the premier, to work with the city of Saint John on both short-term and longer-term solutions."