We Must Do Things Differently And We Must Do It Now

The very first action I took as your mayor, was to add a note on my telephone that sits on my desk as reminder of my pledge and first responsibility. That note says, “ Serve the People” This fits with my values and guides me in every city decision I make. This is what I’ve done and will continue to do.

This year’s Budget for the City of Saint John will invest $151 million dollars across our areas of priority. Despite what has been reported, protective services (Police and Fire) are not being targeted. All departments are sharing proportionality in restructuring. In fact, protective services will receive the largest single budget allocation at $50,837,107 or 33% of the total budget.

In straight talk, we must aggressively grow jobs that sustain, grow our population that will compound efficiencies, and increase our tax base that will allow us to maintain and expand our infrastructure and services. If anyone else knows another prescription for a brighter future, I would love to hear it.

We must also restructure by taking 15 million dollars of costs out of our budget over the next three years. Failure to do so will result in massive tax increases. I cannot in good conscious be the Mayor who proposes that. In fact, I know that we need to lower taxes to encourage growth and, most importantly, give you, the taxpayer, a break.

Not everyone will like some of these decisions. However, we must grow and I will not, cannot, accept organized opposition to our efforts with each — step — we — take.

I have heard countless reasons why we should not do this or not do that, but no one has told me to maintain the status quo. Something has to give and change is inevitable. As a community we need to have an adult conversation about how we build and nurture our community. Let me paint the picture…

The Bad

Our revenue growth has been zero and our costs have risen 10.6% since 2014. If the City was your household, you’d be at credit counselling services right now.

When I decided to run as a candidate for Mayor, I talked about, built strategies around, and focused on two areas:

  1. Growth and
  2. getting our finances fixed.

Those are simple promises and when I began in this role I had a good idea of where we were. It was actually worse.

I describe myself as a “glass half-full realist”. I love this city and believe in our full potential. Having said that, I’ll be blunt: our finances are in crisis.

The Good

The good news is, we have a balanced plan. At the centre of this plan is you, the taxpayer. Young, middle aged, and seniors, you must come first. You, the residents who choose to make Saint John home.

What makes our plan balanced is that it is focused on generating new revenues, restricting costs, and seeking and achieving policy change with the provincial government. What our plan doesn’t do is kick the ball further down the field by increasing taxes or avoiding difficult decisions. What throws our plan off balance are the narrow entitlements of a few to the detriment of so many.

While we wait for the tax base to grow from the actions we have begun and continue to act on, we have limited choices to deal with our immediate shortfall; either raise taxes and/or cut services.

When We Step Up, They’ll Step Up

I have been advocating to all levels of government for the City’s fair share and support for our sustainability. It’s why, for the first time in a very long time, I am calling on Tax Reform for Saint John.

We called for new, innovative revenue generators such as Saint John Energy to consider how they might be more aggressive on growing revenues for the City.

I have been having conversations with business associations and key industry players to make them aware of our financial situation, changes that need to come, and ways they might help or be patient with the decisions we need to make to dig us out of this hole.

So it is crucial to residents, businesses, and others that our employees and unionized staff embrace the necessary changes to the way we do business at the City, to meet the challenges we have been asking others to help us with and give us their best.

What Needs to Change

We need to do things differently. Last year Saint John Transit ran a $300,000 deficit. With some very hard work, great leadership, and necessary restructuring, this year they are running a $225,000 surplus! This necessary restructuring will result in leaner operations for Transit and better service. We need more of this.

This innovation can happen and must happen in every department, in every corner of City operations. Again, we have no choice. Opposition to innovation is a white flag; a surrender to the worst outcomes on offer. But I am happy to say that an innovation mindset can be found in many parts of City Hall!

Over the last number of months our staff, management, and finance committee have invested countless hours, working through multiple scenarios and I thank them for that. There are many people working with an incredible commitment to improve our situation who brighten even the darkest days of this struggle.

Over the years, there have been many actions taken (and not taken) related to cost and wage escalation far above inflation that we should not be surprised that we have now painted ourselves into a corner. At this point in our restructuring, consider it simply: big and small, demands on our finances are threats to our future.

  1. I am calling on my Council members to have the fortitude to create a sustainable city and to not drive our financial burden any further down the road.
  2. I am calling on citizens to embrace and support the necessary changes for a brighter and sustainable future. We were elected to act on your behalf and I am thankful for your encouragement and support. It’s not easy to make tough decisions when all you hear from is a small, organized opposition.

It will be difficult in the short term but, in the long term, we must become sustainable for our residents and future residents. I am not prepared to pass this burden directly on to our taxpayers.

We have a great opportunity to put this city on a sustainable path! Our biggest risk is NOT acting, which will be devastating for all residents.

No more status quo and no more tax increases. It’s time for the residents of Saint John to come first. After all of the innovation, efficiencies, and collaboration needed right now we will become a better, more sustainable, and prosperous city in so many ways! We must do things differently and we must do it now.

Thank you for listening and please join the conversation.

Don

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