This week’s meeting was startlingly fast and painless. They were done in 25 minutes flat—I didn’t even have time to finish my tea. You’ll get just a brief overview of their sprint through the minutes, and then we’ll switch gears to Committee of the Whole from Wednesday past. Thankfully, it was an interesting one to unpack with the new Citizen Satisfaction Survey results presented. 

Municipal Vermouth

Before we dig in, contemplate this: Danny Williams and DewCor didn’t want regular ol’ light poles in Galway. They wanted fancy, decorative light poles—afterall, sexy light poles are an important civic distinction for any self-respecting frequenter of The Shoppes. Everywhere else in the City, NL Power owns and operates the light poles for a fee (excluding the cost of electricity). Instead, DewCor proposed that they pay for and install said sexy light poles and then the City would take over ownership and all associated maintenance and replacement costs thereafter. 

After the agreement was signed, DewCor came back saying that any savings the City realized from operating the sexy light poles (compared to the cost of boring normal light poles) should be passed back to them. The potential savings over the anticipated life-cycle of the sexy lights is just about half a million bucks.

Staff says shag that: the City should keep the savings. This request wasn’t in the agreement and the City accepted any risks associated with future costs. The decision has been deferred to the next Committee of the Whole meeting. Whatever should they do?!

Things Requested and Then Unanimously Granted 

The convenience store on Hunt’s Lane, over off Bell’s Turn, is turning into a takeout. The proponent is also planning on making prepackaged food for distribution to local stores. No eating area inside. Motion carried.

The old Judy Knee Dance Studio on Mayor Avenue is transforming into a theatre / TV rehearsal studio. Motion carried.

Yet another Mineral Workings Quarry going up off the TCH near Pasture Land Road. Motion carried.

We’re acquiring a boom truck; proprietary City software (for things like taxes, assessments, and land management) maintenance will be renewed; and, six years worth of nuts and bolts for fleet maintenance will be stockpiled. There were 54 pages of itemized nuts and bolts-y things in the agenda—can’t complain about transparency there. 

Alida Zedel has been appointed as the younger-generation cyclist member of the Bike St. John’s Advisory Committee. Congrats to her! Various portfolio lead roles that Dave Lane left in his wake were divvied up between Cllrs Skinner, Froude, and Hanlon.

Citizen Satisfaction Survey 2020—Yay Data Comparisons!

Between October 24th and November 15th, 2020, 100 people from each of the five City Wards endured phone surveys from MQO Research—the firm tasked with measuring how chuffed we all are to live in St. John’s. Big shout out to all you noble residents who didn’t screen the call. Results are now available. Mr. David Head reported that there was a good mix of respondents across demographics groups such as: age, renter vs. homeowner, length of time living in the city, etc.

In my piece on the 2021 Budget, I mentioned the 2018 Citizen Satisfaction Survey (done by the same crowd). This was the first survey of its kind in Town, and serves as a benchmark against which all future results can be compared and performance shifts can be measured. So here we are with data set number two!

Key highlights:

Quality of Life: On a 10-point scale, 88% of respondents rated their overall quality of life in St. John’s a 7 or higher. Across all wards, people’s lives are 10% better since 2018. I’m not exactly sure how that’s possible after the year we just had. The NL spirit of masochism is alive and well?

Satisfaction with City Programs and Services: The survey looked into 20 service areas. 85% of respondents rated their overall satisfaction a 7 or higher. This is up by 15% since 2018. 

Importance of Programs and Services: It’s very cool to see people’s priorities tracking over time here. The most significant increases over the two-year period included: 311 / Access St. John’s (+10%), Land Use Planning (+7%), Sidewalk Snow Clearing (+6%), Heritage Preservation (+5%), and Recreation Facilities (+5%).

I’m not jumping to conclusions, but this does feel like a progessive signal. People appear to care more about how their built environment is designed. Contrary to what most of Council think, they care about winter pedestrian mobility. They want heritage stewardship, they want to play and exercise in their neighbourhoods, and they value strong communication channels from the city. A common theme: social equity and connection.

Are people starting to wake up to the impacts of sprawl-development over the last few decades? Is it possible that Snowmageddon and Covid-19 have acted as step-ladders, letting people poke their heads up out of the status-quo trenches? Modern residential subdivisions lean heavily on the use of personal vehicles, and create a lifestyle of never-ending errands by car that inevitably make us feel exhausted and isolated. And that’s without a pandemic. 

I really hope that these stats are reflective of an increase in civic engagement, and tougher accountability for regressive decisions.

Arguably, the most important part of this process is the Gap Analysis. That is, the disparity between importance and satisfaction. I’m going to call that the ‘disappointment rating’. The table below lists the 20 service areas in descending disappointment.

The top 5 biggest disappointments have remained the same since 2018 with one exception: sidewalk snow clearing, with a 6% increase in disappointment, has leap-frogged road snow clearing. People are actually more rotted about the state of sidewalk snow clearing than they are about road snow clearing. For such a car-centric city, this is a really significant finding. As of 2020, sidewalk snow clearing actually has the lowest satisfaction rating of all the listed service areas, at 20%. And believe it or not, people’s satisfaction with road snow-clearing actually increased by 8% since 2018.

If council again refuses to increase the budget for sidewalk snow clearing at the end of this year, it will be in direct contradiction of what residents value and demand. An interesting point: sidewalk snow clearing is not separated from overall snow clearing in the City’s budget documents. This makes it hard to track changes in satisfaction alongside changes in investment. If you happen to be writing your Cllr anytime soon, tack this on as a request! They’ll need to hear it from more people than just me.

Communication and Accountability: Significant increases were seen across the board. That said, only 56% (up from 40%) feel the City is managing its money responsibly. And while it seems contradictory, 70% (up from 56%) rated the overall value of what they receive for their tax dollars a 7 or higher (out of 10). 76% feel that City Hall is doing a good job of keeping residents informed.

Capital Spending: The top priority for ‘non-essential’ infrastructure is city-owned and operated non-profit housing! Second priority is ‘green initiatives’ connected to reducing greenhouse gases! And “a resounding 87% of residents support balancing investments,” which means going beyond the provision of basic services to enhance resident quality of life. We do have a heart! 

Covid-19 Impact on Perceptions: Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this work. When asked about the connection between the pandemic and their perceptions of quality of life, 26% of residents reported a positive impact, while 43% reported a negative impact. Drilling further down, the pandemic negatively impacted the following groups of people disproportionately, compared to other groups in each demographic category:

  • The 18-34 age group
  • Renters
  • The lower and middle-income groups (<$50k and $50k – $100k) 
  • Those with children at home (just slightly more impacted—6% more than those without kids).

On the impact of Covid-19 on household finances, please see the graph below.

For 19% of respondents, things improved. 22% saw their financial situation worsen. The majority stayed the same. How do these stats differ from non-pandemic years? What does this information say about the city’s capacity for withstanding a marginal municipal tax increase? Especially if done via a progressive model that sees the rich paying more than the poor. What if there was a Covid-19 impact tax-relief application, for those who were hit hardest? Might the anti-tax increase outcry from most councillors during the budget deliberations in December have been a bit alarmist? These are questions worth asking—if you ask me.

Municipal Brandy

I’m very sorry, but we’re fresh out this week. They’ll hopefully restock the sweet and cute Council tidbits I’ve come to look forward to within the next 7 days! ‘Til then.

Photo by Graham Kennedy.

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Jess Puddister is The Independent's Municipal Correspondent, writing a weekly column titled, So Moved, St. John's. She's been working with Newfoundland and Labrador municipalities since 2017 mainly on climate change response strategy, eco-asset management planning, and sustainable development advocacy.