Arts funding and the affordability of homes and bus passes were up for discussion Wednesday night as St. John’s began pre-budget consultations.
Concerns about access to public transport for low-income families was raised at recent St. John’s city council pre-budget hearings. — Telegram file photo
The city heard from about a half-dozen presenters on priorities they want the city to consider in the upcoming budget, including Patrick Foran, general manager of professional theatre group Artistic Fraud. Foran said he hopes the city will consider increasing the amount of money it sets aside for local arts groups.
“Compared with other jurisdictions, the per-capita rate that the city uses for supporting the arts — it has grown, it was $1 per capita in 2012, 2013 was $1.50, and in 2014 it’s going to $2, so that’s all great news, but it’s lower than the national average. Through our activity, because we’re a touring company, we’re leveraging funds from the theatres who present us on the mainland.”
Next year, for example, Artistic Fraud is planning a 75-performance tour of “Oil and Water,” the story of Lanier Phillips, pulled from the water when the American naval vessels Truxtun and Pollux ran aground off St. Lawrence in 1942.
“We’ve toured that show previously, but this will be the largest tour we’ve ever done,” said Foran, adding the show will be performed in some of the largest theatres in Canada.
“Through our activity, we’re bringing new dollars into the St. John’s economy, specifically into the cultural sector, and it would be great if they increased the size of the city arts grant.”
Edward Sawdon of Vibrant Communities, the provincial branch of a national organization that works to reduce poverty, spoke about the need for more affordable and accessible transit, floating the idea of a pay-what-you-can bus pass for low-income riders, instead of the monthly $70 for adults.
“They’d pay a lower rate, like on a sliding scale,” he said. “You’d have the opportunity to get out and around the city. … There’s a lot of people, families, who for whatever reason are low or fixed-income, and if they had a subsidized bus pass or a bus pass at a lower rate, then they could access a lot of the services throughout the city. It would help them in a lot of ways.”
Victoria Belbin, chief executive officer of the Newfoundland and Labrador branch of the Canadian Homebuilders Association, said the group is concerned about the effects of government-imposed charges on housing affordability.
“We are concerned that when municipalities increase those government-imposed costs, there’s a certain segment of new-home buyers that may not be eligible anymore to purchase that new home,” she said. “If a new entrant into new-home buyership is close to that edge, a thousand dollars can make a significant difference in their ability to reach home ownership. So what we’re trying to do is educate the municipality to ensure they understand the impact these fees have.”
Ward 1 Coun. Danny Breen, chairman of the finance and administration standing committee, said the consultation aired some good ideas and valid concerns — as for more affordable transit accessibility, he noted that Metrobus is already heavily subsidized by taxpayers, and changes have to either work within the existing budget or increase the cost to taxpayers.
“I think Metrobus, or public transit, or transportation in general in the area, needs to have a more regional approach to it. That may be the answer,” he said, noting that he has concerns about determining who’s eligible for lower-cost bus fares as well as the cost of administering a program like that.
“With any type of means-testing like that, there’s a cutoff. So what happens to people who fall just outside that? That’s a pretty complex issue.
Breen also noted the costs of development are growing, and that the city’s portion of about $44,000 in government-imposed charges to a new-home buyer in St. John’s is only $3,155.
“The municipal charges are a pretty small percentage of total government costs that go in to home construction,” said Breen, adding the city has the second-lowest cost per-home of cities in Canada.
Des Whelan, second vice-chairman of the St. John’s Board of Trade, also made a presentation at the consultation on behalf of the board.
The Telegram was declined a request to interview Whelan, with a spokeswoman for the board noting the organization’s policy is for chairman Denis Mahoney to speak to the media.
The city’s pre-budget consultations continue today, with a 9-11 a.m. session