Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's employee costs 'staggering,' says Art Puddister

Coun. Art Puddister continues to criticize the level of tax hikes thrust upon homeowners and the business community in St. John's.

City councillor remains vocal in opposition to tax hikes for residential, commercial sectors

St. John's city councillor Art Puddister believes tax increases could have been softened in the 2016 budget. (CBC)

Coun. Art Puddister continues to criticize the level of tax hikes thrust upon homeowners and the business community in St. John's, saying council could have found savings elsewhere, including what he describes as "staggering" employee costs.

Puddister was one of three councillors to oppose the city's $300-plus million 2016 budget.

The three-year fiscal blueprint includes an average increase for residential property taxes of 12.7 per cent in Year 1, while commercial property taxes will increase by 14.3 per cent.

The city will also slash some services, reduce grants and implement a variety of other austerity measures in order to offset a long pattern of growth in recent years that has since ground to a halt.

Puddister believes council could have trimmed the tax rate even more by looking elsewhere for savings.

He pointed directly at the cost of maintaining the city's workforce of roughly 1,200 employees.

He said it costs taxpayers an average of $95,000 per employee each year.

"We have the best place in the province to work for. Better than the provincial or federal governments," said Puddister.

"I think we need to review all of our expenses, including our wage package," he added.

I think we need to review all of our expenses, including our wage package.- Art Puddister

The city will spend some $110 million in salaries and other employee benefits next year, and that figure will only increase.

Last year, the city signed a four-year agreement with workers that includes an 18 per cent increase in wages.

The city agreed to the increases as part of an agreement to modify the pension plan, with new hires receiving a defined contribution plan.

"We had to pay a premium to deal with the unions," Puddister said.

So how would he find savings?

Here's one of his suggestions.

"I think the economic development probably could be a joint venture with the St. John's Board of Trade. Our tourism probably could be contracted out to Destination St. John's, and these people, through attrition, could be transitioned to other places in the city," he said.

Puddister voiced his opposition to the budgetary process late last month, long before council approved the plan on Monday.

He said he went public with his frustrations because his colleagues would not support his call to lower the residential tax rate to 7.4 mills. 

Puddister believes the city will collect $7 million more in taxes in 2016 than it needs.

He blames this on a commitment to implement a consistent tax rate throughout the three-year plan.

"We're looking at a $300-million budget. Certainly you could find $10 or $15 million if you tried hard enough," he said.

With files from Todd O'Brien

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