Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's councillors end silence on layoffs and Metrobus cuts

"This decision has me torn up, honestly … but there are a lot of challenging decisions that have to be made," Coun. Dave Lane said Wednesday. However, some of his colleagues say they will not support the service reduction.

Maggie Burton, Ian Froude are 2 councillors who oppose reducing bus service

Coun. Dave Lane, seen here at a council meeting in 2019, says tough decisions are needed to balance the budget. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

St. John's city councillors are finally speaking about recent municipal job cuts and a reduction in Metrobus service — both which have put people out of work or will see their shifts reduced. 

A week ago, the city outlined its plan to eliminate 16 full-time positions within municipal operations, and an additional five full-time jobs at St. John's Sports and Entertainment, in addition to two part-time ones. Few details were provided.

One day later, CBC News reported Metrobus was paring back service levels due to an $800,000 budget cut from the City of St. John's. 

"This decision has me torn up honestly. I don't like that we are doing [this] … but there are a lot of challenging decisions that have to be made," Coun. Dave Lane, who chairs the finance committee, told reporters Wednesday. 

After the cuts and Metrobus reduction were announced last week, no member of council, including Mayor Danny Breen and Lane, would do an interview or answer questions on either of those topics, city spokesperson Kelly Maguire told CBC News. 

Now several are speaking out. 

Lane said routes, 1, 2, 3 and 10 will be most impacted, with longer wait times between rides, analogous to the usual summer schedule.

He said moving to a reduced schedule seemed like a better option than another proposal, which was to raise fares. 

Ridership levels are half of what they were this time last year, according to Metrobus manager Judy Powell. (Rob Antle/CBC)

However, he warned that a network-wide review would be needed next September, to see where ridership levels end up. 

Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O'Leary told The St. John's Morning Show that cuts are necessary, since municipal governments can't run a deficit. 

"So that means that in every single department, everybody has to look for efficiencies. And I think that that's, you know, a common goal of everybody. Nobody wants to see their taxes raised. However, services are really important, especially at this point in time," she said. 

Not all councillors support Metrobus service reduction

Coun. Maggie Burton also said she doesn't support the changes, particularly because they "will have a real impact on some of the most vulnerable residents in the city."

She said retail and food industry jobs are usually shift-based and people will have fewer options to get to and from work, and will have to wait longer for a bus. 

"I hope that people can use this time before Dec. 7 to let council know whether or not they support a permanent reduction of $800,000 in the annual budget to Metrobus," Burton told CBC News on Wednesday afternoon. 

Coun. Maggie Burton says the reduction in Metrobus service will have an impact on some of the most vulnerable residents in the city. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Coun. Ian Froude tweeted Tuesday that he doesn't support the cuts to Metrobus service. 

Lane said he respected dissenting opinions, but ultimately, a financial plan needs to be approved.

"I don't like everything in the budget, but we need to pull something together that balances the budget, [that] doesn't have undue pressure on the public," he said. 

Other councillors were asked to comment by CBC Radio's On The Go on the cuts, including Jamie Korab, Debbie Hanlon and Breen. They either didn't respond or said they were not available. 

Missed money from Ottawa

In July, the federal government earmarked $19 billion to assist provinces and territories, including municipalities, with restarting their economies amid COVID-19.

At the time, it was stated N.L. would receive $146 million of that amount, to be funnelled into everything from COVID-19 testing to personal protective equipment to child-care spaces, and to municipalities in need.

However, there was an exception: provinces and territories could also apply for extra money destined for public transit, to offset pandemic losses.

Newfoundland and Labrador did not apply for that money. Though it was a provincial government decision, at the time, Breen said any transit losses it experienced were minimal compared with larger cities.

"We wouldn't have a significant enough loss to make value of that," he said in July. 

Breen has not responded to recent interview requests from CBC. 

In July, the city had collected $18 million less in taxes than in the same month in 2019. 

The monster blizzard that stalled the city for over a week in January also dealt a massive blow to the city budget, leaving an estimated $7-million bill in its wake.

Metrobus ridership down

Since September, ridership levels have hovered at about half of what they normally are, according to Metrobus manager Judy Powell, who also refused to do an interview. 

While regular service was reinstated this past September, a combination of people working from home, plus Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic moving to online classes, added up to fewer people taking the bus. 

Powell says drivers will see some shifts eliminated starting Jan. 4. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Uncertainty will persist for drivers. Those who don't have a shift effective Jan. 4 will get a record of employment so they can file for employment insurance.

"However you will remain on the recall list and called to work on an as needed basis," Powell wrote in a letter to drivers obtained by CBC News.

The municipal budget will be tabled Dec. 7. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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