St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen says he knows residents want to keep costs low, but finding ways to reduce spending while maintaining services will be the biggest challenge in 2018.
Breen says what he learned on the campaign trail in 2017 will factor into decision-making heading into 2019. Keeping costs low while maintaining services like snowclearing and the introduction of automated garbage collection is going to be a key challenge for the city.
“I think that’s what the residents want us to do. They like the level of service, which is really what I campaigned on,” Breen said in a year-end interview with The Telegram.
“People appreciate the level of service, they believe they’re getting a good level of service from the city and they want us to do it more efficiently and more effectively. We need to be more cost effective in how we deliver those services.”
Breen’s first three months in the mayor’s chair saw a new council cutting its teeth on a relatively status quo budget. The big work for the new council comes with planning the next three-year budget cycle that may factor in a sizeable drop in revenue, depending on how the Municipal Assessment Agency revalues property.
With a sluggish economy still dogging the province, property values could be looking at a 5 to 10 per cent drop in 2019, which would put a major hole in the city’s taxation revenue. Even a 5 per cent drop could mean $7 million to $9 million less in tax revenue accrued by the city.
Breen says he’ll have to wait like everyone else to see how home values are reassessed to determine what changes in taxation will have to come. In the 2018 budget, the mill rates remained the same for both residential (7.3) and commercial (24.7).
Another challenge the city will have to prepare for could hold some opportunity for keeping costs low. The provincial government has targeted 2019 for introducing regional government across the province.
While St. John’s already shares costs of services like fire protection with its neighbours, Breen says more cost sharing can work for the entire Northeast Avalon.
“We can share more services. I think we have some areas where we can expand regionalization that works for each of the municipalities. If you look at recreation, that’s an area where I think we can do more regional service offerings,” he said.
“In any case where we can make it work to the benefit of each municipality, then I think we need to investigate that.”
Breen says he doesn’t think the regional model of government will mean a fourth level of government, which he hopes will mean avoiding more taxation to pay for it.
“The governance is already in place. We’ve already elected councils, and regional service boards are in place. We don’t need to duplicate layers of government.”
Another way Breen proposes to keep costs down is the introduction of a municipal auditor general for the city. A panel will be established early in the new year to explore best practices for such a position.
The city has an existing audit service that is directed by council. A bylaw would have to be passed by council for the municipal auditor general, wherein a provision could give the auditor complete independence from council.
Breen doesn’t want to get ahead of the review committee recommendations, but the issue of where the auditor reports will be top of mind.
“I don’t think we’d be looking at duplicating what’s currently being done. I think what we’re looking at is, first of all, ensuring what’s being done is appropriate,” said Breen.
“Secondly, to look at how (the auditor) reports to the public in the most accountable manner that we can.”
While Breen looks for any way to save money that he can, lawyer fees have been built up amid a dispute with Galway developer Danny Williams at Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court.
Williams launched a lawsuit in early November, citing discrimination by the city based on its use of arbitration panels and development agreements.
That case is with Justice Frances Knickle, awaiting a decision in the coming weeks.
Breen says he’s not sure how such a dispute could have been avoided.
“It’s a difficult question because what we’ve been doing has been accepted all along. We’ll wait to see the results of the court case and see what changes, if any, would be required,” he said.
“Galway, in particular, is a very important part of that growth for the city and for the province. It’s a major project, one that we want to see be successful. But we also have to protect the interests of the residents of the city.”