New Brunswick

High hopes for secretive working group's report on rescuing Saint John

A special working group is expected to issue recommendations in January on solutions for the City of Saint John's long-term financial problems.

Group struck by former premier Brian Gallant charged with finding solutions to city's financial woes

The city of Saint John awaits a January report that could ease the municipality's financial crisis, heading off cuts to services. (CBC)

A special working group is expected to issue recommendations in January on solutions for the City of Saint John's long-term financial problems.

The group was appointed by the former Brian Gallant government in late 2017 following years of near-zero assessment growth for the city and is intended to head off potentially serious cuts to staff and city services.

The group is made up entirely of civil servants from the municipality and the province, with no politicians in the mix.

Its work has been cloaked in secrecy.

But the city has pinned a lot of hope on the outcome and the possibility it will bring some kind of relief.

Coun. David Merrithew, the Saint John finance committee chair, said he doesn't know the name of a single provincial civil servant on the committee, and city staff aren't allowed to talk about the discussions.

But he has been told the discussions are serious.

"They're not giving us details but they say the talks are genuine, they're high level, [provincial officials] understand where we're coming from," he said.

There is so much optimism about the outcome of the report, said Merrithew, that there was even discussion of limiting the city's 2019 budget to just the first six months of the year in case new revenue sources were identified.

City councillors elected to approve a full-year budget Monday night.

Saint John faces challenges

Mayor Don Darling said he does know few limits have been placed on the work of the committee.

"My expectation is they're looking at a full range of both revenue-generating and cost-reduction options," said Darling.

A document, known as the "White Paper," prepared by former city manager Jeff Trail lays out a list of potential reforms,  including changes to the property tax system to remove some exemptions for big industry and give municipalities the right to set different classes of taxable property.

Frederick Dion of the Association of Francophone Municipalities: We want a Royal Commission inquiry. (CBC)

It also asks for, among other things, changes to the system of binding arbitration for groups such as police and firefighters, and more support for regionalization of services.

Any reforms recommended by the working group would affect all of the province's municipalities, and that is a concern for some of those who aren't at the table, says Frederick Dion, director general for the Association of Francophone Municipalities of New Brunswick.

"We understand that Saint John faces some challenges," Dion said. "It would be, I would say, a big mistake to come up with some solutions for Saint John only, or think that these solutions will apply to all other municipalities."

Full steam ahead 

Dion said a much broader discussion needs to take place.

"We want a royal commission inquiry, in the same form as the Byrne Commission in the '60s, to look at all the fiscal aspects of the way the services are delivered by municipalities and what are the tools they [have] to deliver these services."

The 1963 report of the commission led by Edward Byrne resulted in the Equal Opportunity programs of the Louis Robichaud government and widespread changes to education, health-care delivery, and to powers of municipalities and county governments.

The working committee report for Saint John was originally scheduled to be released Jan. 1 but will arrive before the end of the month, according to Darling.

The mayor said he's been assured no changes have been made to the membership of the committee since the Progressive Conservatives under Blaine Higgs took power in the province. 

"In fact, we have met with the premier and he's committed to the working group report," Darling said. "It's full steam ahead."

About the Author

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726 Connell.smith@cbc.ca

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