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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — As municipalities across the country announce layoffs, St. John’s and Mount Pearl are no exception.
In St. John’s, 179 casual and non-permanent city employees were laid off about two weeks ago. Mayor Danny Breen said that includes non-permanent casual and call-in employees such as crossing guards, recreation counsellors, program instructors and lifeguards.
“When our recreation facilities shut down, of course then there were no programs,” Breen said.
It’s a similar situation in Mount Pearl, where 67 part-time city staff were laid off on March 13 when the city’s recreation facilities and city-owned buildings closed. Mayor Dave Aker said the city intends to hire all of those employees back whenever it is possible to open the facilities again.
While Breen said the St. John’s layoffs save the city roughly $100,000 biweekly, there’s also no revenue coming in from those recreation programs.
Worse, the capital city has lost about $12 million in revenue so far this year, Breen said.
He said that’s because there are cancellations at Mile One Centre and the St. John’s Convention Centre, Metrobus ridership has decreased, parking and fine revenue is down, the city isn’t collecting accommodation taxes because hotels are empty, there are more vacancies in buildings and the vacancy allowance has increased, and there’s interest relief on property tax deferrals.
Breen said that $12-million figure also includes the $7 million the city incurred because of the Jan. 17 blizzard — money the city still hopes to get reimbursed through federal aid. He said the city has submitted that claim to the federal government, and is in discussions about reimbursement.
“But we don’t know exactly how much we’ll get back there,” he said.
Meanwhile, the city has roughly $13 million in surplus, Breen estimated.
“You certainly don’t want to use all that contingency because who knows what may happen next, or when you’d need further money.”
He said the city is “absolutely” concerned about its internal financial issues.
“But also the impact on the economy, and the impact on the residents and businesses is like we’ve never seen before. So, a very challenging time. It means that we have to be very careful, and very prudent, as we move forward, and be prepared for when this is lifted and we start bringing the economy back.”
Breen said another factor is that municipalities are required to have a balanced budget.
“So, we can’t budget for a deficit, nor can we borrow money for operating. What it means is that we have to find ways to offset that loss. That’s why our surpluses that we’ve kept on hand are important. It may mean that we’ve got to rework some of our capital projects, things like that.”
He said that along with other mayors across the country with whom he meets weekly, the city is asking the federal government for help in recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Mount Pearl, city staff are working on a forecast of the city’s budgeted expenditures and revenues both short- and long-term.
“No decisions have been made in terms of any permanent layoffs and the like, but we’re going to be using that forecast, once adopted by council, to guide us,” said Mayor Dave Aker.
“We’re going to be under significant pressure, I think.”
He said that’s because it’s expected many residents and businesses will ask for tax deferrals.
“The revenue side will be trending downward, there’s no doubt about it, and the expenditures side will have to be routed at the same time because we want to ensure that going forward into the new year we certainly don’t want to be in a position where we would be raising taxes. I think that’s the last thing people need right now.”
Aker said he doesn’t expect any growth in the city’s revenue this year or next.
“Certainly council’s going to have to review expenditures and decide which ones are a priority, and which ones are of lesser priority.”
Like St. John’s, Mount Pearl incurred significant costs because of the January blizzard. Aker puts the price tag at $1 million, but said the city expects to recoup most of that in funding from the federal government.
“It’s been a double whammy this year, and it looks like the end is not in sight,” Aker said.
In Paradise, there have been no layoffs of town staff related to the pandemic, according to a town spokesperson. However, there are usually six people hired for summer labour, and the spokesperson said it’s uncertain if or when those employees will be hired.
In St. John’s, the city was expecting to hire 164 seasonal workers for the summer, and it is still going to initiate that hiring process, but Breen said it’s uncertain whether anyone will actually be hired.
“We don’t know what programs, if any, we will have this summer. It depends on what happens, and that’s one of the challenges with this, is that there is no end date, so you have to really plan for every eventuality.”
On the west coast, in Corner Brook, Mayor Jim Parsons told The Telegram no city staff have been laid off there. The city employs roughly 200 people at any given time, though the number fluctuates seasonally.
“We’re in, at this point, a fairly stable financial position, and we’ve been able, I guess, to transition pretty much all of our workforce to a work-at-home model for office staff, or deploy from home for our outside workers,” said Parsons.
He said the city doesn’t have many recreational staff who would be working right now, adding that jobs such as lifeguards are seasonal.
Parsons said it’s difficult to tell at this point what will happen with the city’s seasonal summer employees, but he hopes there might be options for those individuals with changes to federal programs that municipalities would usually avail of for student workers.
He said the city has actually had an increase in permits issued for small renovation projects.
Parsons said the city is taking the situation day by day, and there may need to be changes made to recreation and tourism services delivered by the city as the situation progresses.
The Telegram also contacted Grand Falls-Windsor and Conception Bay South officials for comment, but did not receive a response by press deadline.