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Budgetary concerns trump new spending
Despite a public engagement survey this summer indicating St. John’s residents are willing to pay higher taxes for better-cleared winter sidewalks, city council is not so willing to make that change.
At a committee of the whole meeting on Wednesday, councillors discussed various changes that could be made to improve sidewalk snowclearing.
Coun. Ian Froude, lead for public works — the department responsible for snowclearing — pushed for increased spending this winter on the service.
He made a motion to increase the budget up to $900,000 on equipment and up to $450,000 on operating costs.
When it came time to vote, however, only Coun. Maggie Burton and Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary agreed with him.
What most of council did agree with him on were some smaller changes he suggested: a staff review of priorities of sidewalks, laneways and stairways to ensure resources are used efficiently on the most important routes; to address the quality of existing sidewalk snowclearing; to enforce existing bylaws that prohibit obstruction of a sidewalk by snow removal; and to look at whether some side roads can be deprioritized for vehicular snowclearing to free up resources for sidewalks.
All but Coun. Debbie Hanlon and Coun. Wally Collins voted in favour of those changes.
Lastly, Froude made a motion to also refer the sidewalk snowclearing discussion to council’s upcoming budget process. Council also approved of this, with only Collins voting against.
“Two weeks ago we were presented a summary of public engagement to date, and the survey was quite clear: it shows a dissatisfaction of residents and their feelings of unsafe conditions as they move around the city in the wintertime,” said Froude.
“I’ve listened to those with disabilities share their experience in getting around. It weighs on me heavily that we’re not further along.”
He said many people rely on using sidewalks to get where they need to go in the wintertime, and for that reason he argued council should treat sidewalk snowclearing as an essential service.
Burton agreed, and said the public engagement done this summer showed two-thirds of respondents were willing to pay increased taxes to improve sidewalk snowclearing.
“We have no reason not to act this winter,” she said.
“Even with the most expensive options (city staff) provided, we spend capital investments of that magnitude on all kinds of things. You know, $3.3-million is one-twentieth of what we budgeted for our share of the Convention Centre,” said Burton, who then listed several other high-cost items.
“There are a lot of things that are considered super normal for the city to spend money on, and in St. John’s, unfortunately, sidewalk snowclearing has not been one of those things. So, it’s been effectively deprioritized over the years, and I think that we need to have a total rethink of how we do this, and what getting around means.
“The city has a duty to provide safe options for getting around the city from Point A to Point B, and walking is one of those.”
Conversely, Coun. Sandy Hickman, Coun. Jamie Korab and Collins said there’s a chance taxes will already need to be increased, with each of them citing a few reasons: federally mandated wastewater treatment improvements that could increase water taxes, plus the effects of the pandemic and snowmageddon on this year’s budget.
“I don’t think people out there right now, especially right now, can have a tax increase. You’ve got to get in the real world,” said Collins.
Mayor Danny Breen reminded council that the city is still projecting a significant deficit this year of between $18 million and $20 million. He said the city has surpluses in reserve that could cover that deficit, but they can’t deplete the entire surplus when the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet fully realized.
“These are extremely difficult and challenging times. I cannot overemphasize the challenges that not only ourselves but the province are facing as we move forward," Breen said." "And we need to make sure that every expenditure we make, we’re making with all the information available to make … the best decision in the interest of all the taxpayers, and all the residents of the city.”
He said when sidewalk snowclearing is discussed amid other budgetary items in the coming months it may wind up that the amounts suggested do indeed get spent on sidewalks, but it’s too early to commit to that spending without having a better understanding of the overall finances.
Council’s decision during Wednesday’s committee of the whole meeting requires a final vote at an upcoming council meeting, typically in two weeks’ time.