Coun. Dave Lane took to Facebook on Thursday to answer questions from the public as the city of St. John's prepares to release the details of its budget for 2021 on Monday.
The city has to narrow the gap on its roughly $18 million deficit — brought on by a record-setting blizzard in January and the COVID-19 pandemic — to deliver a balanced budget.
Some details of the budget have already made headlines and prompted public outcry. Those include job cuts at city hall and St. John's Sports and Entertainment, in addition to Metrobus reducing its service.
Earlier this year, council wouldn't commit to extra money to clear sidewalks in the winter, also sparking backlash.
On Thursday Lane said the city has received about $6.4 million from the provincial and federal governments to help in the disaster response, and through good budgeting and management over the last two or three years the city is working with a surplus which will help avoid affecting tax payers.
"With that said, a lot of those same effects that we're seeing are going to carry into 2021," said Lane, chair of the city's finance committee.
"So when we looked at 2021, we're forecasting less revenue and a few expense increases, which we will be announcing in detail on Monday. However, even with that knowledge, we can't predict where the year is going to go."
Canada Games bid
The city plans to follow through on bringing the 2025 Canada Games to St. John's with a commitment of $3 million to the bid, despite cuts across several departments recently. The city will also kick in about $2.7 million for operations.
Lane said the last time the city hosted the summer games, in 1977, there was an uptick in investment and infrastructure, and other programs residents have been able to benefit from.
"The Aquarena is probably the biggest example of what we've been able to benefit from there," he said.
But there's also economic spinoff, Lane continued, with significant funds coming from the Canada Games from the thousands of people, including athletes, the city believes will make the trip.
"When you do something like that, it stimulates the economy in a very noticeable way," he said.
"This is going to be a huge bump after a very difficult period, because tourism and travel has really been decimated by the pandemic."
Lane said a rebound for the city likely won't take place until 2024, and with the Games in 2025 he said it will generate about $100 million.
Buses and fire trucks
One of the first questions posted for Lane asked about the recent cuts to Metrobus, which is halting regular service and moving to a summer schedule for the winter, beginning in January.
Lane said he's an advocate for public transit and it's a city priority, but the topic of cuts came up during a meeting with council surrounding next year's budget when it was revealed that ridership is down by about 50 per cent.
"That's kind of similar to what ridership is like in the summer, and the way Metrobus typically reacts to that is we have a summer schedule," said Lane.
"We are listening to what people are saying. I'm a huge proponent of a healthy and strong transit network. So, we are still having conversations and I'm hopeful we can, on budget day, announce that we have something that is going to work for most people."
Several comments followed asking about the cuts to the St. John's Regional Fire Department, where one ladder truck will no longer be in service.
Lane said the city has been seeing an increase in overtime costs, and while the city will continue to use overtime to provide the "incredible level of protection" given by SJRFD, the costs have doubled over the last four years.
"So we need to find ways to address that, and that's the discussion that we've been having," Lane said.
"One thing I want to make very clear is that there's no intention at all, and never has been ... to reduce the force of firefighters. We've have always said that we want 44 personnel on and we want to maintain that 44. What we're talking about is when do we start bringing on people with overtime costs, and that's when the number gets to a certain level. I think it's 37 or 39."
What about Mile One?
Lane said one of the most commons things the city's council members get asked is about the potential sale of Mile One Centre.
St. John's businessman Dean MacDonald has long said he wants to buy the arena and has plans for a $25-million makeover.
Lane said he's open to it, but the city wants to carefully consider the decision.
"If we sold Mile One, the money that would come out of the sale that would be one-time money," said Lane.
"Convention centres and stadiums have always been considered what they call 'loss leaders.' You're losing money, so to speak, but it has such an impact on the economy that everyone else can get a benefit from that. So if we relinquish control over that, can we be confident that it will continue to provide the benefits that it's intended to?"
Lane said the city has gone back to a consultant to go over its options for the stadium. He said a public engagement event is planned for when that report comes back to the city in the new year.
Meanwhile, a protest formed outside of city hall on Thursday afternoon over residents calling for safer sidewalks and demanding the city to revisit the Metrobus plan in the name of inclusion and accessibility issues.
"We want accessible, snow-free, ice-free sidewalks," said Anne Malone of the Social Justice Co-op, organizers of the event. "Accessibility is not a privilege. It's our right."
The group wants public transit accessible to everyone in the city who need it to go to work, fulfil the activities of their day-to-day lives and also ensure there is safety in place for getting to, waiting for and exiting the bus.