For a So Moved double header, we’ve decided to roll last week’s budget coverage together with Council’s last meeting of 2020. We hope it’s some good food for thought through the holidays.

Municipal Vermouth

I’m going to start a practice of sharing a bit of saucy rhetoric at the beginning of my column each week. Something that deserves a mention, but that’s it for now. Hopefully it will stimulate your critical thinking, and get you in the mood. Like a little apéritif. 

For today: why the hell are members of the public allowed to receive golden broom awards in council chambers, while the press is barred from sitting in the gallery and limited to a truncated view by video-stream? SMH.

The Big Bad Wolf: Budget 2021

On Monday, December 7th, the budget dropped in St. John’s. It gave us a chance to pause and take stock of what happened during the past year, and where that leaves us going forward. Budgets might seem like a big snore: a spreadsheet manifestation of “how do we not go broke?”

But it’s so much more than that. 

Not only does the city budget provide a read on predicted money in and money out, but also a concrete, quantitative demonstration of Council’s priorities and values. In a lot of ways, it’s where the rubber hits the road on what you voted for in the last election. This is something I want you to remember, because so many of our councillors ran and won on campaigns that centred around how they promised to approach budget days. Budget strategy, or rather, promises to not raise taxes, win seats, apparently. This is the “common sense” perspective—I wonder if it’s totally true. It often dictates who even decides to run, which in turn largely defines the scope of equitable growth potential we have available to us during each Council’s 4-year mandate.

As a reminder, and as Dave Lane explained in his budget primer, an anticipated deficit of $10 – $12 million was projected for 2021, which Council is legally required to make up for. A balanced budget, at $312,526,525, was passed through a combination of program cuts, fee increases, and a portion of available surplus funds (not all—we still need to be prepared for unpredicted future emergencies). Enhancing existing service levels or adding new ones were off the table. Here are my main takeaways, and some reflections on their validity:

Public engagement did not happen because it was an uncertain year—decisions involving layoffs are sensitive, and Council wanted to let those individuals know before going public (which they did on November 18th). It’s also the third year in a 3-year budget cycle. Council went back to consultation done in 2019, discussions with individuals and advocacy groups, traditional and social media engagement, and constituent correspondence over the last year. 

  • Giving residents and business owners the opportunity to discuss options and share what it means for their lives if one priority is chosen over another does not infringe on the privacy of city staff. Relying on old, narrow, or out-of-context feedback seems unjust. Meaningful engagement with municipal processes is a hard nut to crack—it requires thoughtful and accessible data presentation, and a welcoming, empowering framework. Cllr Froude said, “A budget presented and voted on without any public engagement is not one I’m going to accept, especially one with so many substantial changes. These changes should have been presented to the people of the city for input.”
  • Through this term I’ve seen several sitting Cllrs generalize public opinion based on the polarizing stance of a loud few emails from people who often don’t and/or won’t see their own privilege. I’ve seen them openly disregard statistically-relevant survey results. We won’t be successful in stamping out these harmful habits with less or lazy engagement. We do it by elevating more voices. The importance around this becomes increasingly urgent as household and individual vulnerabilities balloon. They started developing the budget 6 months ago—there’s no excuse for not doing SOME targeted engagement.

Not raising the mil rate was ultimately given veto power over all budgetary decisions. Cllr Lane said, “[Council] didn’t want to add to financial strain on people during this time.” Before Snowmageddon and the pandemic, we enjoyed a 90-95% certainty about how a year is going to pan out financially. Since we don’t know how the second wave of Covid-19 and the vaccine will unfold in 2021, or how quickly the economy will stabilize, we also don’t know how much revenue can be relied on. 

“At the end of the day, we’re fairly certain that the majority of our residents and business owners do not want a tax increase and many could not withstand one,” said Lane. From a 2018, statistically-relevant citizen satisfaction survey, he shared that 22 – 30% of townies were willing to have a tax increase. They expect that number is a lot lower now.

  • Here’s some stats: according to the 2016 Canadian census, there are a total of 47,640 private households in St. John’s. The median household income for couple-families in St. John’s, in 2017, was $103,900. (2021 is a census year, so we can look forward to tightened accuracy soon.) 
  • I am not saying that people aren’t hurting right now. And I’m not downplaying the reality of lost income, jobs, childcare, and overall security due to the pandemic. But we can see that there is wealth in St. John’s. It’s just not being redistributed very well, which punishes poor people and traps them in poverty—an effect that is only exacerbated during hard times. This is illustrated by the choice to protect the mil rate (on the residential side, only relevant to property owners) over investing in essential services like transit and safe sidewalks year-round, relied on most by disadvantaged residents. Shittier services entrench the stigmatization of their use by all segments of the population, leaving us less efficient, less connected, and less equitable as a community. 
  • An increase in the residential mil rate from 7.7 (0.77% of a property’s total assessment), where it currently lies, to 7.8 would generate an additional ~$1.2 million in revenue. Inspired by Twitter user @alleyson (Alley Doyle), I want to try to make these numbers accessible. So here’s some back of the napkin workings to show you how I got there: 
  • For a household in St. John’s assessed at the MLS Home Price index composite benchmark in October, 2020—$271,000 (up 3.5% since this time last year)—that would mean an extra $27.10 out of pocket for the year. Far less, for lower-valued homes. And remember, seniors can apply for a 25% discount. This extra revenue, if invested in transit and winter sidewalk clearing improvements would be (to borrow a word from Cllr Burton) “transformative.” But we are told by Cllr Lane that, “a tax increase at this time could not and would not be supported by the majority of residential and commercial property owners in the city.”
  • The regressive structure of municipal taxes doesn’t make sense. The 0.1 mil rate increase I’m hypothesizing about here would have the owners of a million dollar McMansion pay an extra hundred bucks. Presumably, people in homes like that have more disposable income than those in $200,000 houses—but, because of the system, they are shouldering a lower proportional burden than those who are worth less to the banks. At the provincial and federal levels, income is taxed progressively, so that more is taken from those who can afford more. Current municipal taxation has some serious catching up to do. It doesn’t serve residents trying to build safe, sustainable lives for their families, and it doesn’t serve councils trying their darndest to meet people’s needs with insufficient resources. 
  • The whole is more than the sum of its parts, and harnessing collective power is what enables a society to pursue levels of systemic growth, wellbeing, and resilience that are otherwise unattainable. Stock investors know this. So do the big banks and insurance companies. When it helps the rich get richer, the power of the collective is called financial prudence. When leveraged to provide public services as an equalizer, it’s called a handout. It makes me angry that there isn’t an option to pay more money in support of public services for the community at-large right now; especially given the gap between the Provincially-governed minimum wage and a living wage. Regressive taxation models and the Province’s utter failure to update municipal legislation in a timely fashion (to allow for change) are choking us.

Metrobus ridership is down due to the pandemic. Reducing the hours of operation would balance supply and demand, but Council also recognized the importance of our public transit system, particularly for those who rely on it most. That service reduction was initially going to see the buses operating on their summer schedule starting in January: pick-ups every half hour at peak times, instead of every 15 minutes. Due to public push-back and last minute adjustments, the reduction in operation hours will not begin until April. Roll-out of the planned Frequent Transit Network is pushed until January, 2022. Bottom line: Metrobus has been directed to operate with half a million dollars less (~4%) annually than what they had before—permanently.

  • It’s great they were able to push the reduction by four months, to get people through the worst of the winter. But the ultimate decision to cut service is very disappointing, and will impact quality of life for many. It will also strike a blow to meaningful gains made in ridership over the past several years—gains that took investment to achieve. As Cllr Froude said, “We need to invest in transit and treat it as a core service, that is already bare bones. There are many items in this budget that we said are too important to cut—transit should have been one of them.”

Selling Mile One Stadium is a potential decision currently being studied by a consultant hired by Council. If sold, “the money that comes out of it is one-time money,” said Cllr Lane. Stadiums and conference centres often operate at a loss but provide so much economic benefit for everyone else in the local economy, which was said to “outweigh those losses.” 

  • I fail to see how that economic stimulus would stop happening if those facilities were operated privately. 

Fees relating to car-use such as visitor permit parking, metre-paid parking, traffic violation and parking tickets, winter parking ban, and street cleaning tickets were all bumped up.

  • Proper thing. 

Water Taxes are going up by $15.

  • How is this totally fine, but not a mil rate increase that would result in the same ballpark amount per household?

Staff Lay-Offs are happening—16.32 full-time equivalent positions are on the chopping block, mostly from administrative support areas. No management positions were made redundant this time, because of big payouts in-lieu of notice that would have been required. Yes, that’s right: again, the lowest paid are punished. 

Final Thoughts

Winter sidewalk clearing was a contentious issue connected to the budget. But since it was addressed a few months ago with a (failed) motion to increase its level of service—and it is not being subjected to a budget cut—it wasn’t really highlighted. Cllrs Burton and Froude, however, stated that the decision to deprioritize this item was one of the driving factors that led them both to not support the budget as tabled. In her speech during discussion, Cllr Burton said, “the human and economic costs of our unsafe sidewalks and under-funded transit massively exceeds the costs of clearing them and providing these services. Inadequate snow-clearing in the city does kill and hurt people every year. It hurts business, too.”

The main problems I see with the entire budgeting process in St. John’s are that (1) it isn’t as transparent as it should be, and (2) it doesn’t seem to be rooted in measurable end-user data. Which means, accountability and progress are a bit of a crapshoot. Mind you, they do have one set of data on this stuff; they just largely seem to be ignoring it. 

The 2018 Citizen Satisfaction Survey.

The 2018 Citizen Satisfaction Survey tells us (under Gap Analysis), for example, that sidewalk snow clearing has an 81% importance rating, and only a 20% satisfaction rating. That’s a huge disparity between the expected level of service and what is delivered, earning its place in the ‘Primary Areas for Improvement’ category. This is not reflected in the budget, though.

Why is it so damn hard to find City actuals? What’s the City’s investment planning process? How are level of service reviews linked to the budget? How can we tell when levels of service are or aren’t slipping? (Blind trust?) What Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) do they use to assess whether or not they’re hitting the mark? What benchmarking initiatives does the city participate in, to find out what ‘good’ even means? There’s a dusty corner of the City’s website titled ‘Our Performance,’ that shows they’ve been working on this stuff since 2017, but it certainly doesn’t shed light on the answers to these questions. These are things I’ll be digging into come the New Year. 

It was clear that Council did not take budget decisions lightly. They worked hard to reach where they arrived with it, and they all care deeply about the community in their own ways. Seasoned members noted that this was the most challenging budget process they have ever been part of. Everyone thanked Cllr Dave Lane for his effort and leadership on the budget, especially in light of his departure from Council after serving two terms. 

It was also very clear that there are councillors who are willing to capitalize on the powerful force of people’s selfishness (through either acceptance or ignorance of socioeconomic disparities between different groups of people) in order to hold their seat in office. Candidates who run on a promise of not raising taxes under any circumstances reinforce the idea that disproportionate and classist suffering is normal and okay. By centering their bid to represent you (and subsequent decision-making) around a guarantee of holding the residential mil rate as is, they are saying that basic human rights and dignity for everyone are less important than what you’d spend on a case of beer in a 12-month period. It was hard to watch. But I learned a lot, and I hope you did too.

Council’s Last Meeting for 2020

Georgestown Inn Tea Room

Parking relief for 7 spaces for an Eating Establishment (Heritage Use) permit was granted in Monday’s meeting. Important distinction: The owners of the Inn aren’t actually seeking parking relief—they are required to do so under Discretionary Use regulations for the Residential Medium Density Zone. They actually stated in their submission, “We feel that this type of parking should not be required due to our neighbourhood’s proximity to downtown and available travel/parking options.” I love to see businesses dissing parking minimums. 

Beyond that though, let me just say that the anonymous submissions from Georgestown in support of this Tea Room have me in my mixed-use glee over here. A favourite: “…I have no connection to the current business, but I have been a resident of this Neighbourhood since 2002, and I feel that the increase in small businesses in the last decade plus in Georgetown has increased the appeal of living in this Neighbourhood. I hope in the future that Council will continue to support these small initiatives by our residents that increase the quality of living for residents.”

If I were a bizarre urban-planning version of Ms. Frizzle, I would take my class on a field trip to Georgestown to show them how residential and commercial uses can not only get along, but help each other thrive. Then, the children of Sin Jawns suburbia could go home to their single-detached dwellings and demand better from their voting-eligible supervisors. 

Climate Action

We’re paying Stantec $75,538 for economic modeling connected to climate change adaptation and mitigation. In plain speak from Cllr Froude, they’ll determine and guide communication on “…savings, opportunity costs, and potential job creation from actions as we take on climate change.” Mayor Dan pointed out that this data analysis will also measure impacts on businesses and people of different socioeconomic statuses. This is a really great step in the development of a Sustainability Plan for the city.

Rennies River Flood Mitigation

A Zoom meeting was held on November 17th to show the public what the plan is to address flooding in the river valley between Long Pond and Quidi Vidi Lake, and get their feedback before submitting a scope of work via environmental registration documentation to the Province. Nobody on Engage St. John’s, or during the meeting, made commentary in support of the project. Outside the formal engagement process, there was some support from property owners for the work happening by Winter Ave.

Cllr Froude laid out three key components to this work (federally funded, to the tune of $1.9M), as per the CBCL study: (1) efforts in the headwaters to reduce flow (including stormwater management policy and a retention pond in Kenmount Terrace, (2) a weir on Long Pond, to control a more reasonable pace of flow, and (3) proposed construction of retaining walls or berms adjacent to three streets (Vaughan Place, Pringle Place, and Winter Ave.) downstream of Long Pond to reduce flooding by private properties. It feels a bit like I’m in a subliminal menstrual products commercial.

Large storms in the past have caused flooding, and climate change will only bring more frequent, heavier flows. Fortunately, the city’s flood zone mapping takes into consideration climate change projections modelling. Construction is not permitted in flood zones, or the buffers around them. 

5000 postcards were sent out to residents living near the river! That honestly sounds pretty impressive to me. Maybe they should do this for Level of Service assessments before the next budget! 

Cllr Froude moved that the City submit to the Province’s environmental review process only for the proposed berm adjacent to Winter Ave (from the end of the boardwalk to King’s Bridge Road, on both sides of the river). He recognized that this is the only part of the plan that has any public support, and there are three factors that make this move important:

  1. It’s required to protect the electricity substation near King’s Bridge Road
  2. It’s necessary to allow building on an empty, but residentially-owned, lot on the street,
  3. Based on the location and design criteria, it will have less impact on the river system than the other two proposed locations.

One option (of 3) for proposed flood mitigation construction (berms) near Winter Ave. 

This motion doesn’t confirm the project, it just sends it up the line for provincial approval. (Yep, the same crowd allowing a new hospital to be built on a wetland by the Parkway.) Cllr Froude has concerns even about this Winter Ave. berm, but thinks they can be best addressed by the environmental review process.

Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary was the sole member not in support, because she’s heard concerns from residents in the area and she’s not a fan of relying on (built infrastructure) mitigation for flood management. “We’re dealing with this now as a result of poor planning, let’s be honest.” She raises the point that berms can be used as a rationale to say we’re responding to flooding issues, when the core of the issue lies unaddressed—this is unsatisfactory.

Farewell to Cllr Lane

Bidding adieu to Dave actually took up the majority of this week’s meeting. It was quite touching. Cllr Lane had a waver when thanking the public for trusting him and voting for him, but he wrangled it and persisted. Without eulogizing the Lane days of City Council, I think it’s fair to say that he seriously raised the bar on public engagement and the bike master plan, and turned the heads of a lot of people who previously didn’t pay any attention to the goings on at city hall. A few choice highlights:

  • Dave Lane’s priority 4Bs: business, budget, bikes, and buses. Sheilagh O’Leary added a fifth: babies, “the most important thing.” 
  • Mayor Dan’s shade thrown at baby-Dave in his first year, wearing sweaters and ties to meetings. “Look, you gotta buy a suit. I’m glad you listened to me, and not to Cllr. Korab.” (Who happened to look like Christmas had vomited on him.) 
  • Wally Collins’ shock around Cllr Lane being actually quite funny. “Never knew ‘til we went downtown one day and had a coupla beers after a meeting… I didn’t think he had a sense of humour, but he really do. His impressions of people—we won’t say who because we might get in trouble—was really good.” 
  • Cllr Hickman fist-bumping Cllr Lane through the plexi-glass.

Municipal Brandy

I suppose since I gave you an apéritif, I should also offer you a digestif. Something sweet to leave you with, that’ll hopefully aid in your digestion of Council’s proceedings. I can’t make any promises on this one, but most weeks there’s at least one cute gem that deserves a little mention. For now, I’m happy to share that twenty pieces of art were selected for purchase through the city’s Art Procurement Program. They will be on display throughout City Hall, other city buildings, and public spaces. Also, according to Cllr Hickman, City drinking water is the highest quality H2O in North America. So I encourage you to visit Wyatt Hall and get a glass of tap water, look at some art, and think about how you want to vote next September.

Main photo by Graham Kennedy.

The Independent is 100% funded by its readers. Your pay-what-you-can subscription or one-time donation provides a base of revenue to keep our bills paid and our contributors writing. For as little as $5 a month, you can fund the future of journalism in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Donate

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.