Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

The real scandal over municipal costs in metro St. John's isn't managerial salaries

A cluster of cities and towns have all been pushing their own developments on the Northeast Avalon, leading to a planning mess that will cost us for many years to come, writes John Gushue.

We're paying through sprawl, inefficient administration and poor housing stock

Subdivisions have been consistently cropping up across the Northeast Avalon, with more than a dozen municipalities competing for new taxpayers. (CBC)

A few weeks ago, my colleague Katie Breen reported a story that raised a few political eyebrows.

She told us how all 13 municipalities in the St. John's area (itself a large number, and we'll get back to that in a moment) had a manager, and their salaries are not necessarily modest.

At the low end, little Bauline — population 452 — pays its manager $52,500.

Petty Harbour, population 960, may pay less; the town official there refused to divulge her salary.

The six largest municipalities all pay six-figure salaries, with Portugal Cove-St. Philip's (8,147 residents) paying a starting salary of $105,288 to its manager.

Mount Pearl, which has a smaller population and is about one-quarter the area of Conception Bay South, pays more than its larger neighbour: $207,610 in Mount Pearl versus $199,155 in C.B.S. (and, yes, the smaller place is a city, and the larger one is a town. Scratch your head on that).

In St. John's, the manager gets paid more — $233,853 — than the so-called "twin city," but also has more on their plate. St. John's is about 445 square kilometres — enough land to accommodate 28 Mount Pearls.

Altogether, municipal taxpayers on the Northeast Avalon are cutting managerial cheques for more than $1.37 million every year.

That's not the real problem, though.

Fragmented, messy … and expensive

When you zoom out and look at the patchwork of development on the Northeast Avalon over the decades, you see something more troubling.

Subdivisions had overblown titles that sounded like '80s prime-time soaps, old-timey British villages or forgotten Scottish gentry. Imagine places like Vulture's Landing, Pomposity Heights, Glengarry Glenn Payette.

Each of these municipalities has been approving subdivisions for years and years, competing with each other to lure a new tax base to pay for the town's operating costs.

In the go-go years of the oil boom, those subdivisions were on fire. There were oversized signs everywhere, hawking proposed developments with overblown titles that sounded like '80s prime-time soaps, old-timey British villages or forgotten Scottish gentry. Imagine places like Vulture's Landing, Pomposity Heights, Glengarry Glenn Payette, whatever.

That simultaneous competition for development has dramatically extended the sprawl of the area, with an overwhelming push toward a limited number of housing types — largely single detached dwellings, maybe with basement apartments.

This is where the costs add up. Pressure to build and maintain roads has soared, and there isn't enough density to make public transit viable, because the population of the region is spread so thin.

Roadwork is a chronic cost in the St. John's area — especially as the network of roads and highways gets larger each year. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

How thin? Consider this: the physical footprint of the St. John's Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) is about 70 per cent of the area of the City of Toronto, but less than seven per cent of the population. (That's right. We're much less dense than Toronto, in more ways than one.)

We're paying with road costs, maintenance, pollution

There are plenty of good reasons why people want to move out of the city and look for, say, a view of the bay, or an affordable lot. No question.

But there's also no question we're all collectively paying for an uncoordinated, shambolic system. On top of cost, there are other major implications to how we've built up the Northeast Avalon: roads, traffic, pollution, access to health and other services, inappropriate housing stock, maintenance, snow clearing — it's a long list.

Peacekeepers Way is the bypass highway in Conception Bay South, which has allowed suburban dwellers to connect to regional highways. (CBC)

A couple of weeks ago, we drove the full length of Peacekeepers Way, the bypass connecting the far end of Conception Bay South to the Trans-Canada Highway. It's a speedy road which no doubt makes it easier for commuters to get to work.

It occurred to me that sunny evening, though, that the big highway is kind of like a giant crayon mark against a sheet of paper, and the various parts of C.B.S. are now being filled in with different shades of colour. That's just that string of neighbourhoods. The same thing is playing out all over the region.

No one thinks their own patch of land is the problem. But it's all connected. Decisions made decades ago are causing headaches for us today, and we still lack a genuine regional planning approach with teeth and courage.

Politically, there's still zero appetite for amalgamation — certainly not since the Clyde Wells government tried to move on it in the early '90s and wound up working through a compromise solution that effectively avoided tough decisions. Subsequent governments (including the Tories, featuring then-cabinet-minister Steve Kent, now the city manager of Mount Pearl) treated the concept as a scorching-hot potato. 

The can got kicked down the road, and we see the impact of that all around us. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.


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