A spontaneous wave of laughter followed the initial answer when reporters asked the president of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) a simple question.
What will happen if there is nothing significant in the provincial budget towards a new fiscal arrangement for towns and cities?
MNL president Churence Rogers — the mayor of Centreville-Wareham-Trinity — said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” and then had to wait for the spontaneous applause to end before moving on.
When pressed by reporters, Rogers agreed MNL has a plan, but said it won’t discuss it publicly until it knows what will be in the budget.
MNL held the news conference Monday following an emergency meeting on a new fiscal arrangement, which it and the City of St. John’s have been talking publicly about for at least the last six months.
“What we’re asking government for today is very clear,” said Rogers. “Short-term help in this 2012 budget and a commitment to participation in the development of a long-term, strategic plan for the municipal sector.”
About 75 municipal leaders — representing 43 municipalities from around the province — came to St. John’s for the meeting, while members of council from another 66 towns and cities took part via teleconference.
“People have driven six hours today, and longer to be here. People have travelled from Labrador,” said Rogers to illustrate how important the issue is.
“It’s because they believe in what they are doing. ... 74 per cent of people who sit on (municipal) councils in this province receive $2,000 a year or less ... so they don’t do it for the money. They do it for the love of their communities,” said Rogers.
In the short-term MNL wants municipal operating grants from the province to have at least the value they did in 2011, if not more.
But it also wants the province to rebate what municipalities pay to the province in HST.
Rogers said the HST rebate would be a sign of good faith the province is willing to sit down with municipalities and start work on a long-term, sustainable plan to fund communities.
He repeated what St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe told reporters last week, that it’s wrong for the province to tax municipalities, when no other level of government taxes another.
Rogers also said the province hasn’t lived up to past commitments to work toward a new fiscal arrangement.
“I sat in on a meeting with a former minister in 2009 who made that commitment that there would be something in the 2011 budget. It was committed to in 2011 that there would be something in 2012. We’re still waiting,” he said.
Rogers said MNL would write Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O’Brien later in the day “reminding him of his commitment” to begin consultations with municipalities on the issue.
And he said MNL expects meaningful consultations during the process.
In the House of Assembly later in the afternoon, both the Liberal and NDP municipal affairs critics raised the issue.
Liberal Eddie Joyce said the fiscal arrangement has been on the agenda of the Department of Municipal Affairs since 2008.
“Why did your government fail to follow through on its commitment to municipalities in Newfoundland and Labrador and download your fiscal mismanagement on municipalities?” Joyce asked.
But O’Brien responded by saying the government has been spending a lot of money on municipal issues.
“I respect the right of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador ... to advocate and lobby on behalf of the people who live in their communities,” O’Brien said. “But I would also like to remind them (about) the tremendous investment that ... this government has made, over the last number of years in municipalities across Newfoundland and Labrador.”
The NDP’s George Murphy tried to get O’Brien to confirm government would not include a new fiscal arrangement in this year’s budget.
“What I have committed to is to work with Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador and municipalities in general in regard to meeting their needs,” O’Brien replied.