Well here we are less than a month away for our next municipal election. So what will the next Mayor and Common Council inherit? Would you believe a City with enormous opportunity but unfortunately, with a few serious challenges thrown in?
- The highest residential property tax rate in New Brunswick. In October 2013 Mayor Norton said he wanted Council to “look at a sustainable decrease in the property tax rate.” Well we know how far that went, we still have a tax rate of 1.785 per hundred.
- A 22% commercial and retail vacancy rate, the highest in Canada. We also have a very high residential vacancy rate. It would be interesting to know how many house sales in the past year were bank re-possessions, but the Saint John Real Estate Board would prefer that we don’t talk about those issues, it might spook buyers. Would you call that a bit like, “the boat has a serious leak but don’t tell anyone”? Council Merrithew notes 31 per cent of properties in Saint John had their assessments lowered in 2014. “I don’t know why we’re assessed lower. We have older housing stock,” Merrithew said. I shouldn’t need to explain the sale price for everything from houses to haddock is based on the law of supply and demand. When the product availability is high and the demand is low prices go down. As a consequence as the prices for properties go down the properties are assessed at lower values. Saint John has been and continues to be “population challenged”.
- High water and sewage rates – one of the highest in Canada and expected to go higher. Perhaps someone can explain to me why with untreated water we have rates that are so high?
The highest poverty, child poverty and teenage pregnancy rate in Canada. In the meantime we have the richest families in New Brunswick living within a few clicks of the City. As a side bar I was over at the boat club the other day scrubbing down my dingy. I noticed a relatively new “yacht” sitting in the yard. I said to a fellow member: “I’ve never seen that boat before, it’s got to be worth a couple hundred thousand dollars”. “Oh” he said; “That belongs to a fireman that lives in the valley”. Am I the only one that sees a problem with folks “in the city” living in poverty and paying the salaries and benefits of ( relatively speaking) “highly paid” City staff living in the valley? Which brings me to the next point. Saint John is rapidly loosing it’s financial ability to meet salary and benefit demands of City employees. Both Fire and Police contracts have expired and we will be back at the bargaining table. When will enough be enough? Median employee income for Saint John is a tad over $30,000 yet the average salary and benefit package for City employees is well over $120,000. How can a compensation package 4 times higher than many folks struggling to make ends meet be justified?
- For two years in a row Saint John placed last out of over 130 cities in Canada in terms of accountability and transparency. Have we become more transparent? Take a look at the most recent annual operating budget and you tell me. 2016 Operating Budget Protective Safety Services – $52 million. So much for detailed information, if after you completed your latest Sobey’s shopping trip you received only the total of $321.78 what would your reaction be?
- A Saint John Pension Plan that may yet come back and bite us on the ass. – CBC News
So ya wanna be Mayor and Councilors? Now you have some idea of the challenges you face? Some advise – Don’t try to re-invent the wheel. We’ve had Common Council after Common Council applying Barbie band-aids to a city that is in need of major surgery and here is the surgical procedure required to get the city out of ICU.
- A complete independent operational audit of every city department. The Saint John Board of Trade had called for an operational audit as far back as the mid eighties, was an audit carried out? no.
- Put in place bench marking. Bench marking has become law in a number of Canadian provinces. Remember the old adage? You can’t manage what you can’t measure. The implementation of bench marking would let us the taxpayer know if we are receiving good value for our hard earned tax dollars.
- Adopted the FSI (Fiscal Sustainability Index) model of municipal budgeting. The FSI model is being adopted by more and more municipalities as a way of maintaining a stable tax base and being fiscally responsible. It’s a commitment to well managed sustainable practices for infrastructure and approved programs. As a means to achieve the outcome, two corporate measures are identified. One of these measures required the establishment of a Fiscal Sustainability Index (FSI), which further required the construction of an MPI. (Municipality Price Index) Based on a five-year rolling average.In short, stop trying to re-invent the wheel. The 1,2,3 above are tried and proven methods used by “progressive” cities.
- As important as the above, learn to say NO to department budgets presented each year asking for more and more and more. In 2008 Fire Chief Simonds stood before Common Council and said over 90% of his budget went toward salaries and benefits. Two years ago Police Chief Reid stood before Council and said that 89% of his budget when towards salaries and benefits. How many businesses would survive if 85 to 90 % of their annual operating budgets was allocated to salaries and benefits? Would you believe none? The same is true for Saint John as well. Common Council has no control over demands and arbitration but it does have control over annual operation budgets, have the courage to make the tough decisions and reign in costs.
- Buy, read and pay attention to “The Creative Class” by Richard Florida.
As I drive around the city I see election signs with new faces as well a lot of familiar faces of Councilors that were shown the door during the municipal election 4 years ago. Question ex-Councilors: With four years to think about it have you figured out why you were given the boot? It’s time to put away the Barbie band-aids and get ready for major fiscal surgery before Saint John goes from ICU to terminally ill status.