Cities and towns in the St. John’s area plan to present a united front on water and transportation issues with the province, say the region’s mayors.
St. John’s hosted a two-hour meeting Friday of the mayors of St. John’s, Mount Pearl, Paradise, Conception Bay South, Torbay, Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s and Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove.
“We talked about transportation, regional transportation. We spent a lot of time talking about regional water and where that’s headed over the next 20, 25 years,” said St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe, who added regional co-operation is crucial for continued growth.
“Economic growth and development, and population movement can be stopped dead in its tracks if we don’t solve these issues and work together,” he said.
St. John’s is partnering with the provincial government for a regional water study, said the St. John’s mayor.
“We’re all agreed that that plan has to happen, and it will point us in the direction of where we need to go in terms of any expansion of our water capacity,” said O’Keefe, who added that the process of a regional transportation study has also begun.
Torbay Mayor Ralph Tapper said a regional water plan is a big issue for his town.
“Our development is pretty well at a standstill in some parts of our town and we’ve got nowhere to go,” he said. “But the biggest thing, as Mayor O’Keefe said, is that we’re talking. There are issues that are common concern and interest to everybody. So if we can get help from St. John’s, whether it’s this year or 20 years down the road, we’ve got to line this up, because it is a regional issue.”
Mount Pearl Mayor Randy Simms said the region has an emerging traffic problem.
“All of these communities that make up the northeast Avalon, they are all distinctive in their own way. They have their own branding, they offer their own lifestyle, they offer their own form of opportunity,” he said.
“If you want to work in downtown St. John’s and get up in the morning and see the ocean and have your coffee before you have to come in what we effectively refer to in the working world as the rat race, if you want to do that and you want to do it in Torbay, Torbay has got to have water, or you lose that public choice. If you want to do that, there’s got to be a road network that allows you to accomplish it, or you lose that piece of public choice.”
The region is dealing with “unbounded growth,” said Simms.
“That’s never been the reality before anywhere,” he said. “So it’s a unique challenge for all of us. When everybody is banging on your door saying, ‘Let me in, let me in,’ you’ve got to make room for them or you can’t let them in.”
Also up for discussion: a new fiscal arrangement that municipalities are demanding from the provincial government.
When St. John’s delivered its 2014 budget last month, the city administration warned that without a new fiscal arrangement, the city might raise municipal taxes next year.
“Our residents are already shouldering what is an unfair burden in terms of revenues and taxes,” said O’Keefe. “We’re paying heavy taxes to the province, and we feel that that relationship has to change, and that any future increases in municipal taxes, really, can be somewhat offset by a new fiscal relationship which is realistic and which recognizes the fact that we, as municipalities and right across the region, are not being treated fairly, from a fiscal standpoint, by the provincial government.”
Regional mayors have been clamouring for years for a new arrangement, but O’Keefe said they expect to see some movement from the provincial government in March when the provincial budget is released.
“The proof of the pudding will be in the cake that’s baked that will be the 2014 (provincial) budget,” said O’Keefe.
Paradise Mayor Dan Bobbett said the provincial budget factors heavily into municipal plans.
“That’s one of the things we all look at when we look at our individual budgets. We look at what the government is providing and what we can give to our residents,” he said. “We’ll have to look at that when we redo our budgets for next year. Obviously, it’s going to make a difference. A new fiscal arrangement is what we want to see, and that’ll make a difference when we’re bringing down our budgets next year, without a doubt.”
Conception Bay South Mayor Ken McDonald said the provincial government’s cancellation of the municipal operating grants for the province’s seven largest communities means some tough decisions for municipalities.
“We had to look at each department to see where we could save, or not necessarily save, but say, ‘OK, this is a service we’re not going to provide that people might have liked to have this year,’” he said. “Hopefully they come up with an arrangement that we can put those services in place to look after the residents who are paying the taxation.”
Mayors also discussed the expected regional municipal plan. Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Steve Kent has indicated there will be a plan unveiled within the next year and a half, said O’Keefe.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that that will happen, and certainly within two years or so we’ll have a regional plan,” said O’Keefe, who added that mayors have a meeting with Kent scheduled for next month.
“We all agree that these are the challenges and issues, and we all agree that we’re the guys that have got to solve it,” said Simms. “Quite frankly, being a municipal leader, I hate this top-down dictated solution. I’d rather we built our own regional plan, that we built our own regional transportation plan, that we did it ourselves and brought it back to the province and said, ‘Here’s the way we’re going to do it,’ and have them stamp it instead of them telling us, ‘Here’s how you will do it,’ and I think that’s where we are.”