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With the municipal election just weeks away, voters might be trying to sift through the myriad of municipal issues that touch their lives. To that end, I’ll be doing a series of articles wherein I help give a bit of insight into how the sausage is made—which is to say, jurisdiction, taxation, and other such bone-dry topics that actually have a hell of a lot of impact on your quality of life.

Today, let’s dive into jurisdiction, or: Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.

The City gets its authority from a few pieces of provincial legislation: the City of St. John’s Act, the Municipal Taxation Act, and the Urban and Rural Planning Act. 

Most modern cities in Canada have enabling legislation from the provinces in which they are situated, which is to say they essentially are able to do whatever they feel they need to do in the best interests of their residents, with the exception of big stuff that is generally under provincial or federal jurisdiction. 

The City of St. John’s Act is over a century old. There have been amendments, but there are still sections that regulate operations of horse-drawn carriages in the City, for example.

The Act differs from other municipal enabling legislation in the sense that it is proscriptive: it lays out, line by line, exactly what the City may do, leaving out a lot of things that residents have come to expect from their municipal government in this day and age.

If you want all horse-drawn carriages to be registered, you’re in luck. But if you want meaningful protections for trees besides those on City property, an effective municipal enforcement framework, or urban design guidelines, not so much. The Provincial government committed to reviewing the Act several years ago—and staff at the City have been working doggedly to help that happen all this time. But given this process dragging on for years doesn’t exactly inspire hope for a new, overhauled Act that will enable the City to finally dig into quality of life issues that are currently beyond its reach.

The City is a Creature of the Province

The especially unfortunate aspect of the Province keeping the City on such a short leash, legislatively speaking, is that they themselves fail to take responsibility for the work that they refuse to enable the City to do on behalf of residents. By neither allowing the City to do the work, nor doing it themselves, the Province is allowing significant needs to go unmet.

The Act requires that the City run balanced budgets, and the Province pays no transfers in lieu of property taxes to the City. By continuing to stubbornly refuse to pay its fair share to the provincial capital, unlike eight out of nine other provinces in Canada, the Province forces the City to further intensify the burden on taxpayers. 

The City’s inability to act like a modern governing body as the capital of a tiny province with terrible weather where you can’t afford fresh vegetables (or to heat your house) on the average salary significantly reduces our competitive advantage when it comes to getting people to move—or stay—here. The City’s Healthy City Strategy is full of beautiful aspirations which are hard to achieve for reasons both legislative and financial. Many of those challenges stem from issues with the Province’s relationship with the City. The implications of these goals being difficult or impossible to achieve blow back on both the City and the Province. It definitely doesn’t help the looming demographic crisis where the dozen thirtysomethings committed to living and dying here are on the hook for the healthcare costs of thousands of aging baby boomers. 

I recall, years ago, a newcomer to St. John’s telling me at an event celebrating diversity in our city, “You want people to stay here? Then clear the damn sidewalks.” Part of the reason the financial decision to do so has proven so challenging for council—though I refuse to exonerate the councillors who specifically obstruct progress on this issue time and again—is the financial constraints as a result of the province not paying its fair share.

Given the provincial buildings contribute heavily to the usage of City services, a bill which is effectively being paid by all our residents rather than the Province itself, this feels like a significant slight, in particular because the Province prevents St. John’s from designing its own destiny so heavily as well. In short, they give us neither money nor power. As well, the Province is not required to follow the City’s development processes, which is exactly who you shouldn’t @ your council representatives about the new hospital being built in a flood plain. The City had no say in whether the development happened or not.

Putting the City in Control

There are so many ways a City can use its legislation to create positive outcomes for its residents, both through by-laws and through financial incentives and getting creative with taxation.

However, even when the City is able to pass a good by-law, enforcing it is difficult. The present framework for making sure the City’s by-laws are adhered to is long, unwieldy, and results in very minor consequences for violations. Our enforcement process, mandated by—you guessed it, the Province—is long, expensive, and not likely to result in compliance. In other words: we spend a lot of public money to ultimately not really get people to do what they’re supposed to.

Take, for example, the snow removal regulations. Every so often someone suggests that we require property owners to clear their own sidewalks—perhaps not realizing that we already have rules about this on the books, at least for commercial property owners downtown. This by-law is, by and large, not enforced because it is logistically extremely difficult to impose. Let’s walk through how that would go down:

  1. Business X on Water Street doesn’t clear the snow (as required) from in front of their business. A resident sees this, doesn’t like it, and calls 311 to report.
  2. The operator puts the complaint through to Inspection Services. It is assigned to an inspector, who goes to have a look within a few days.
  3. At this point, the snow has probably melted, but if not, a notice is issued to clear it within a specific timeframe.
  4. If, at the end of the notice period, the snow remains, repeat step 3.
  5. If still not cleared (assuming it hasn’t rained or thawed, which it almost definitely has), a date is set in provincial court.
  6. If, at the court date, the owner of Business X is found to have violated the regulations, they get a small fine.

If you read that and thought, “Wow, that seems like a lot of frigging around for very little benefit,” you are correct. Remember that this is just an example; all by-law enforcement has to go through this process, which is set out by the Province for the City to follow and is beyond their powers to change. And, like many aspects of this relationship, it impedes the City’s ability to serve its residents well. 

Not only the City Act, but the Municipal Taxation Act inhibits the City’s ability to do good things for residents. This Act enshrines two and only two mil rates: one commercial, one residential. This means that a lot of mechanisms used by other municipalities with modern powers to incentivize certain kinds of development are out of reach. Things like density bonusing, a tax break for affordable housing, and other carrots that can be dangled to pull developers in particular directions are not at the City’s disposal. The City has control over development fees, but these are a one-time expense that is often not large enough to truly move the needle on what gets built where, leaving those decisions up to market forces—which, despite all the compelling reasons otherwise, still favor single detached homes in sprawling suburbs that further drive up servicing costs (and bring along a host of other issues).

What could it look like if the City were given authority to control its own future? Council could determine design guidelines, require complete streets, create a whole host of requirements and incentives to make this a more livable city—and actually make sure those rules get followed. And through an improved financial relationship with the Province, the City might have the ability to actually make some of these lofty goals reality. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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Hope Jamieson is a municipal correspondent with The Independent, covering city council meetings in the weekly column, So Moved, St. John's. She served as Ward 2 Councillor from 2017 to 2020. Hope works in the affordable housing sector, and is dedicated to poverty reduction, social equity, and inclusion. She lives in St. John's with her partner and their three children.