Public weighs in on provincial deficit during consultations in St. John's
The Newfoundland and Labrador government has been extending the number of public consultations being held to garner input on how to deal with the $2 billion deficit.
One consultation was held Wednesday night to accommodate the overflow from the first planned session, and a third session has been added to allow the overflow of people who couldn't make that one.
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At Wednesday's session, Finance Minister Cathy Bennett heard from a number of people who wanted their voices heard as the province looks to improve the economic outlook and find 30 per cent savings within government departments.
This problem didn't get created overnight and we don't expect that we're going to be able to solve it with one budget.- Cathy Bennett
Groups of people were seated at tables and asked to brainstorm ideas to present to Bennett.
Sheila Lee, mayor of Riverhead, said people at her table wanted government to make firm decisions — even if they aren't overly popular.
"We want our government to lead by example and we want you to be strong and we want you to be tough and make the right decisions to really bring us out of this hole we're in," Lee said.
"You have to make tough choices and all of us need to support you, our government, in making this happen."
Lee said specific ideas could include changing the way schools operate and how education is delivered.
"There [are] a lot of schools out there — like big schools in my area — that are virtually empty and they're probably costing us at least half a million or more a year just to keep them open," she said.
"This is something we can't continue, even though it may take a lot of courage to be able to act upon it, but with modern technology today, with all the things we can do, we can change, we can offer good opportunities but we can save a big pile of money."
People hearing, understanding situation
Meanwhile, Bennett said the quantity of responses alone shows people are really starting to think about the province's financial situation.
"I think the people of the province are really hearing, and more importantly understanding, the very difficult fiscal situation that we're in and that we need to make some really tough choices as a community — and they want to be a part of that discussion."
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In addition to the consultations, Bennett said government has received well over 1,000 individual responses from members of the public, with a wide range of suggestions.
"We hear everything, from ideas of how to generate revenue, ideas on how to change expenses," she said.
"We hear information on what services government should be offering, what services government shouldn't be offering, so it's quite the eclectic and wide variety of discussion."
Bennett added there will likely be more consultations in the future, as the province looks to provide its mid-year update in the fall and come up with a budget for 2017.
However, she said there is still a long way to go and plenty of work to be done.
"This problem didn't get created overnight and we don't expect that we're going to be able to solve it with one budget, this is going to be a multi-year solution," said Bennett.