Today I voted against Budget 2018 for the City of St. John’s. The main reasons I opposed are outlined below.
I went into this budget process with very low expectations for change. Budgets change slowly at the best of times, and in this budget process most of the big decisions had been made before we arrived. I did have some hope that I could have effects at the margins.
I expect a budget to move the ball forward either on fiscal responsibility or progressive change. I could support a budget that cuts spending and helps the city operate efficiently and within its means. I could also support a budget that invests in building a more liveable, productive, and fair City. From my perspective this budget misses the mark in both directions. It increases staffing and spending levels, an example being the addition of a Policy Analyst position as part of a 147K increase to the City Manager’s office*. But the new spending is not obviously tied to improved service levels.
One particular issue where I was disappointed at the lack of progress was Metrobus fares. The 2017 budget increased Metrobus fares significantly. Bus fares are a very regressive way to raise money, falling heavily on our poorest residents: 50% of Metrobus users are around or below the poverty line. In some cases fare increases can support higher service levels but these do not. Along with other councillors, I suggested at first a return to 2016 fee levels, and then, more modestly, a reduction in child fares from $2.00 to $1.50. Both suggestions were voted down by the majority of Council.
As I mentioned last week, I have also been concerned with the lack of public consultations leading up to this budget. The public should have a say in how we spend our money, and one example is how much we give to external organizations such as St. John’s Sports and Entertainment. Mile One needs greater scrutiny. We spend 2.5M a year on Mile One versus the 1.3M spent on supporting arts and sports grants. The economic gains of Mile One are not clear enough to me, but the economic impact of a vibrant and creative arts and culture sector sure are.
While I’m not able to support this budget, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s an impressive and professional product. We’ve come to expect a level of fiscal management and planning that is, from a historical perspective, exceptional. I don’t want to take that for granted, and I want to acknowledge the hard work of all the people it took to make it happen: first and foremost Councillor Lane and Deputy City Manager Derek Coffey, but also Mayor Breen and the other members of council, and also former Mayor O’Keefe and the members of the former council, including the past chair of finance Jonathan Galgay. Thank you all for a respectful dialogue around the Budget 2018.
I look forward to continuing the conversation around what our priorities are both as individual councillors and as a team, and starting the 3 year 2019-2021 budget cycle talks from a place of openness and collaboration.
*Edit: original post said the policy analyst position cost 147K. The policy analyst position is only a portion of the 147K, which is in fact 89,244-115,127.