City council orders budget cuts to Saint John Police Force before 2021

The Saint John Board of Police Commissioners has been tasked to make $1.1 million in cuts this year through workforce adjustments.

At Monday night's city council meeting, councillors approved a letter to the commission with instructions to make cuts by the end of the year. However, the letter had not been included in the agenda placed on the city website Friday.

The commission will be mandated to find that money through wage freezes, natural attrition, severance payments, voluntary departure incentives, "the civilianization of certain police services" and service reductions.

The police force's 2020 budget hovers around $26 million.

Police to negotiate a new contract

The letter comes as the commission and members of the Saint John Police Association prepare to begin negotiations on a new contract.

Mayor Don Darling, city managers, and some councillors have repeatedly drawn attention to unionized police and fire staff achieving wage increases higher than inflation.

The city also joined other New Brunswick municipalities in lobbying the provincial government to introduce legislation intended to limit mandatory arbitration settlements involving groups like police and firefighters, who do not have the right to strike.

Although members of the police commission have the authority to decide how the police budget is allocated, city council sets the overall budget for police services.

Darling and Coun. Gary Sullivan are also members of the commission.

CBC

In early December city council approved a motion to make up 50 per cent of the municipality's anticipated $10 million deficits in 2021 and 2022 through "adjustments" across the municipal workforce.

Darling said the commission will have little choice when deciding if workforce adjustments are necessary.

"Some 85 to 90 per cent of the costs associated with their budget are associated with people," said Darling. "So the goods and services budget is a very small proportion."

While a voluntary buyout program exists, it's restricted to non-union positions that are to be permanently eliminated. Darling expects very few people will qualify. 

The city's budget growth is determined by growth in the assessed value of residential, commercial and industrial properties.

That amounts to 1.8 per cent for this year.

But it has averaged less than 1 per cent over the past several years, putting severe pressure on the municipality's finances. 

Making reforms to property tax

Mike Davidson is a representative for three city unions, including the Saint John Police Association. At Monday night's meeting, he also gave his members' assessment on the city's financial situation.

The report agreed with city council's calls for the province to make reforms to the property tax system, particularly heavy industry.  

Since assessments on industries like the three city pulp mills were lowered by the province in 2013, Davidson said the city has lost $298 million in property tax revenue. 

He said unionized city workers are unfairly blamed by members of council and by the public for the municipality's financial problems.

He reminded council that city unions agreed in 2012 to help the municipality through an earlier financial crisis by accepting a shared risk pension plan.