Are We There Yet?

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I have been paying so much attention to the political circus in the States and “The Donald” that I had almost completely forgotten that we have our own problems right here in river city.

It’s 2017 budget deliberation time for our very own Common Council. Kurt Peacock in a recent commentary for the TJ wrote; “The City of Saint John is about to get another fairly large cheque from the provincial government, as the 2017 community funding and equalization grants were released in time for local governments around the province to finalize their operating budget choices”.

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That fairly large cheque is $20 million dollars, that’s a fairly big chunk of change when you consider that Moncton gets only $380,000 in equalization while Fredericton gets ZIP!

The really bad news is that year by year we are seeing still more and more of the operating budget go towards employee salaries and benefits. To make matters worse we now have a Common Council that wants to dip into the cookie jar for a piece of the action. Most are looking for a sizable increase in their financial compensation. Admittedly the compensation for Councilors is low however the performance isn’t anything that you can write home about. I would prefer to see a Common Council that showed a little backbone and made some of the “tough decisions” that councils has talked about term after term after term and THEN bump up the financial compensation, call it pay for performance. It’s a system that I used in my company and it worked quite well. My business philosophy was and continues to be; “if yer not a pullin on the oars thars no room for ya in the boat”.  Do we have any folks at City Hall not pulling on the oars?

The following is taken from a piece that I wrote for the TJ in May 2001; “The primary role of local government has to be the development and implementation of a long-term planning and infrastructure development strategy. The end result being the creation of a positive climate that invites or encourages business growth and new investment in Saint John”.

For anyone that’s counting that’s 15 years ago. How are we doing? Since 2001 we’ve pushed the spinach around the plate with studies like; the Chartwell report, Vision 2015,  that has come and gone, PlanSJ  and more recently survey sessions initialed by our current Mayor and Council called PinIT.

When I look at Common Council’s priorities for 2016 to 2020 how is it remotely possible to achieve those objectives when more and more of the operating budget goes towards City employee salaries and benefits while the “quality of life” investment for citizens continue to shrink?  Did you know that at one time the Saint John had 7 Community Centres?  The remaining ONE the Carlton Community Centre will be turned over to a public board within  the foreseeable future.

Call me a bitcher and complainer if you want but if it took you 15 year to get your business plan together you would be left in and dust and be yesterday’s news. This is business 101 folks, what is required is:

  1. the vision to see beyond the day-to-day mechanics and micro-management of our current business and economy
  2. the courage to invest in new ideas, innovation and opportunities without an absolute iron-clad guarantee of success
  3. the determination to stay the course once a development strategy has been chosen amidst the inevitable doubters and criticism.

In short, vision, courage and tenacity, are required to meet the test of true leadership. The sad truth is that we, in Saint John, have had a declining population for the past 20 years and I am a bit fearful that when the 2016 census results come out in Feb 2017 we will witness yet another decline in population. Young people are still leaving for the land of milk and honey, Ontario, or Alberta, or BC, or where ever.

Take a look at an almost deserted Water Street ,except for investment by the Port Corp and the recent Moosehead Breweries announcement the waterfront has remained virtually unchanged for the past 30 years while other communities like Pictou, Portland,  Charlottetown, Summerside, and Halifax have aggressively managed and fostered development of their waterfronts. But take heart, over the past 2 or 3 years we have heard; “an announcement for the waterfront is coming soon”.

Mr Peacock also wrote: “In years past, council used to complain of how higher wages among the city’s police and fire personnel used to eat up all of city hall’s extra revenue – come January, a good part of the problem of wage escalation can be found by looking around the municipal horseshoe, as a vote to hike the wages of politicians will ultimately consume close to twenty cents of every new dollar in property tax revenue coming to city hall in 2017″.

When I wrote the title “Are we there yet” I was referring to the leadership required by Mayor and Council to make the tough decisions that will make Saint John attractive to both businesses and families. If we’re not there yet, let me know when we are, in the mean time I’m going back to following the Trump circus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But back to the matter of Saint John’s $17.7 million in equalization funding, and the relatively weak local tax base growth that drives it. It should be noted here that the province’s estimate of only $711,000 in extra tax base revenue won’t go very far in a draft operating budget of $153 million, and that draft doesn’t yet include the added costs of $129,000 a year attached to higher salaries for the mayor and council.

That being said, the City of Saint John’s revenue woes were obvious well before council decided to vote themselves an early Christmas bonus. Indeed, an examination of recent revenue gains from an expanding property tax base show that in any given year, Saint John’s revenue momentum was much more in line with New Brunswick’s smaller municipalities than its big city peers. Over the last four years, Miramichi has showed more monentum in real dollar terms through tax base growth than Saint John, despite being a much smaller municipality.

Since council has put so much political capital into the mantra of growth, these anemic numbers are problematic – especially if the 2017 operating budget still being debated proves unable to fundamentally change the city’s fiscal narrative. And the draft budget being circulated so far won’t meaningfully move the needle in the right direction. Growth doesn’t come simply because budget documents have sprinkled the word liberally in between all those extra departmental zeros.

 

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