Outgoing finance chair paints a rosy picture for Saint John after years of cuts

·3 min read
Saint John Finance Committee chair, coun. David Merrithew says cuts were necessary, but no more are needed. He says building upon the balanced budget is up to the future council. (CBC - image credit)
Saint John Finance Committee chair, coun. David Merrithew says cuts were necessary, but no more are needed. He says building upon the balanced budget is up to the future council. (CBC - image credit)

In the last five years, the city of Saint John went through a lot, even before the pandemic.

The city was on the edge of a financial crisis with a budget that was $9 million short. Council and committee had to cut, and cut deep, to avoid falling off the cliff to bankruptcy.

The cuts manifested in big ways: reduced transit routes, the closure of a fire station, elimination of 24 firefighter positions and the deterioration of the city's relationship with the police union after it put a cap on how much the force could spend on salaries.

They also manifested in small ways: reduced staffing meant Canadian and provincial flags weren't raised at as many landmarks as expected. Maintenance of the King's Square bandstand was neglected.

Then came the pandemic, then a cyberattack that brought down the city's entire online network.

But after all of this, outgoing chair of the finance committee, David Merrithew, said the worst is in the past.

"I think it's over. I think it's in line. I do believe we're on the other side of the fence," Merrithew said.

He said the foundation has been built for the incoming mayor and council, which will be chosen in Monday's election.

Unlike the outgoing council, Merrithew said they won't be in survival mode. They'll be able to start to rebuild.

After serving on council for nine years, Merrithew is not reoffering. But if he were, he said one priority would be to get a bigger share of business property tax from the province so the city could grow again after five years of cuts.

Donna Reardon says if elected, she would not change anything about former council's approach to dealing with Saint John's financial woes.
Donna Reardon says if elected, she would not change anything about former council's approach to dealing with Saint John's financial woes.(Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

How much will the incoming leaders building on this foundation?

Mayoral candidates Donna Reardon, Darrell Bastarache, Mel Vincent and Howard Yeomans all say they want to grow Saint John.

Reardon, having served on council for nine years, said she plans to continue in the exact trajectory laid out by outgoing council.

"I wouldn't do anything differently. We've we've made so many changes, I wouldn't make any more changes going forward," Reardon said. "I would use our foundation because what we what we're striving for is we want to be competitive."

Reardon said her priority would be getting more money from commercial property tax, as opposed to seeing it all go into provincial coffers. She said that's the biggest untapped source of revenue for the city.

Mayoral candidate Mel Vincent Jr. says he applauds former council's efforts to balance Saint John's budget, and would build upon their efforts.
Mayoral candidate Mel Vincent Jr. says he applauds former council's efforts to balance Saint John's budget, and would build upon their efforts.(Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Vincent congratulated the outgoing council as well, and said he would be building on, rather than diverging, from their financial priorities. But he would like to change the "culture" of city hall. He said a priority for him would be empower front-line workers.

"As I talked to city workers and business people and residents, the one thing that seems to be lacking is … a lot of decisions, you know, have to come back up the chain. They take too long to make happen."

Yeomans says he would prioritize growth, but he also wants to restore some police and fire services.

Bastarache couldn't be reached for comment, but he has campaigned on reducing property tax for residents and getting industry to "pay their fair share" of taxes.

Listen, and reach out

After years of troubleshooting, Merrithew said he has two messages to leave behind for incoming mayor and council.

"First of all, listen to some very intelligent people. We have a senior staff level at the city if Saint John, marvellous, smart people. Listen to them," he said.

"Number two, reach out to your counterparts, both at federal and provincial levels. OK, because we need like minded governments to help us through some new municipal planning, and it has to be reworked, municipal reform has to happen."