My view on St. John's Budget 2018

We started the process to create the 2018 budget for the City of St. John’s soon after being sworn in on October 10. The question I kept asking myself was: What in this budget is right for the issues that face our city, and the residents of our City? How can I justify supporting the budget when asked by those who elected me?

I couldn’t find a good answer.

I believe it is important that I provide strong scrutiny to the spending by the City and work to ensure the spending is aligned with the priorities of the people of Ward 4 and the whole City.

With this budget, I am being asked to approve the spending of $294,000,000. That’s a responsibility I take very seriously. Whether you are a home owner, renter, business owner in our City, or otherwise, you work hard for that money and it has to be spent wisely. During the budget process internally, I spent a lot of time, as you would expect and deserve, pouring over the numbers and building an understanding of the budget, the services offered, and whether I agreed with the way the spending was balanced. In the end, I decided to oppose the budget.

Here are my reasons:

  • A done deal: The budget was presented to Council as a ‘done deal.’ I was asked to accept this as the previous Council’s budget. To accept status quo. The people of St. John’s didn’t vote for status quo on September 26.

  • More senior staff: This budget is adding another position, a ‘Policy Analyst’ to the senior ranks of City Hall. This position will pay between $89,000 and $114,000. This adds a senior position when we should be shifting priorities and showing fiscal restraint.

  • Burdens on our poorest: In last year’s budget, Council decided to increase Metrobus fares, putting a burden on our City’s neediest people. That was a short-sighted decision then, and it is a short-sighted decision now.

  • Mile One: I’m not convinced that spending $2.5 million on Mile One each year is a responsible use of the taxpayer’s money, especially when there are so many other needs in our City, whether they be infrastructure, sidewalk snow clearing, or otherwise.

Here are those same reasons with more explanation:

The Public deserves a voice in the budget process

I was elected on September 26 to represent the people of Ward 4. I officially took office on October 10. On that day, I took on the responsibility to represent your interests and priorities. Unfortunately, the budget was presented to us as a ‘done deal.’ We have had little to no opportunity to influence the 2018 budget. Since it was the third of three years in the budget cycle, I was being asked to accept it as ‘the last council’s budget, and move on. In essence, to accept status quo. The thing is, whether the last council created it or not, I’m still being asked to say whether I support the spending of $294 million of residents money. I was and am uncomfortable with that because I didn’t feel you had an opportunity to be heard through me as your representative or from you directly. I was being asked to accept the status quo, but the City didn’t vote for the status quo on September 26.

Public engagement is vital to the budget process. As I shared last week, I believe that those who pay their taxes, live, or run businesses in St. John’s should have opportunities to have a say in how their money is spent prior to Council’s final decision on the budget. I am disappointed and frustrated that the public wasn’t given any opportunity to comment on the budget. You can read my full statement from last week here: http://www.ianfroude.ca/budget2017publicengagement

Another name added to the list of people making $100,000

We should be acting with fiscal restraint. In the budget is the addition of a ‘Policy Analyst’ position who will get a salary of about $100,000 (the salary range in the job add was actually $89,000 to $114,000). In a time when we should be showing fiscal restraint, I’m not supporting the addition of a position in the senior ranks of City Hall.

Lack of affordable transportation has economic and social impacts

In the 2017 budget Metrobus and GoBus fares were increased across the Board. I felt that was a short-sighted decision then, and I continue to believe it is a short-sighted decision now.

Here is some background on Metrobus:

  • 42% of passengers use Metrobus to get to work.
  • 26% of passengers use it to get to university.
  • Both of which are essential travel, that as a City we would want these individuals to do.
  • 74% use Metrobus at least 5 days a week. 61% are under the age of 34.
  • 85% did not have access to a vehicle on the day of the trip in question.
  • 50% of users had an income of less than $20,000 per year.

Students, young people and those with low-income.

What other option do these people have to get around the City and participate in our community and our economy?

There is clear evidence that investment in transit is an economic driver, and that it is an essential form of transportation, especially for those who cannot afford other ways of getting around.

As I shared often during the election, I firmly believe we need to make sure our bus system is improved - that it becomes a more efficient and effective as a service. We need to invest in it, but we first to make sure that those who are taking the bus now, can afford to do so. The increase in fares last year and the affirmation of those increased fares in this budget puts an unnecessary burden on many people.

During the budget process, I, and several other Councillors put forward a proposal to roll back the fares to what they were before last years increase. We pushed for this but it wasn’t supported by enough of Council. We then asked that we at least consider a roll-back of the fares for children. The total cost of reducing fees for children by 25% from $2.00 a ride to $1.50 per ride was $74,000.

This would have reduced the burden on families struggling to get by. This would have made a difference and cost little to the City. The argument was that many on social assistance already receive bus passes, and many do, but there are still many who are burdened by these fares. I’ve spoken to people who work with our most vulnerable people everyday, and they shared that making transportation affordable is essential to tackling poverty in our City.

In the September election, I promised that I would speak up for those who needed to be heard. Those who are having trouble getting by in our City. Making it more affordable for them to get around the City - to their jobs, to school, to medical appoints. These fare increases make St. John’s less affordable for those who have the least pennies to pinch. That’s unfair and is why I am opposing the 2018 budget.

Mile One

I’m on the fence about Mile One. Annually, we spend about $2.5 million on Mile One. This includes an operating subsidy, payment on the buildings debt, and funds put aside for any required capital spending on the building.

$2.5 million is a lot of money and I’m not convinced that the City’s taxpayers should be paying for this. I don’t doubt it brings people downtown, which is needed and desired. I don’t doubt it adds economic value to the City, estimates have been that it adds $20 million in economic value. But what I do question, is why the subsidy has to be so high, and whether the private sector would do a better job of maximizing the value we can get out of Mile One.

I also generally question whether reports of gained economic value are accurate. Some studies argue that sports arenas don’t create new income or new economic activity, but that it just moves the money from one area to another. I don’t want to deprioritize encouraging activity in our downtown which has a lot of value. The reason I mention it today is that I do want to make sure this is a good investment.

As context and a comparison, the City gave out about $1.3 million in grants to Arts, Sports, Community Groups, etc. in 2017. That means that we give $1.2 million more to Mile One than we do to the Arts, Community Groups, and community based Sports in our City.

There are some positives in this budget:

1. Taxes were not increased. This is positive for the people and businesses in the City, especially in these tougher economic times.

2. Metrobus and GoBus Review: a review of Metrobus is very valuable. There are important questions that need to be answered on the governance structure, staffing and more. It’s also important because GoBus is not managed connected to Metrobus, and we need to determine whether this is the most efficient and effective way to operate these important services.

3. Using surplus from last year to pay down pension debt is a responsible move.

This was a tough decision to make. Ultimately though, I represent the people of Ward 4 and I have a responsibility to help lead the City forward. I don’t feel this budget sets us on the right path forward.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts. I can be reached at ifroude@StJohns.ca or 576 8217 on Twitter @ianfroude or Facebook.com/IanSFroude

Thank you for reading,

Ian

Ian Froude