Five questions were posed in the virtual meeting – below are the answers provided by all of the 11 candidates who took part.
The questions were repeated to each candidate – that repetition has been removed as has any irrelevant “side talk” about whose turn it was etc. We have also put the answers from both evenings together (while identifying for each question which was in the first Town Hall and which in the second). Time stamps for each answer are provided if you want to go back to the videos (see them here) to see or hear what was said.
- Requiring city contractors to pay a living wage
- Making the city more accessible
- Supporting community groups (tackling cost of required insurance for gatherings)
- The future of transit in the city
- Budgeting priorities given funding pressures
Requiring city contractors to pay a living wage [Topics]
Q1 (from the St. John’s Food Policy Council and NL Eats): From the St. John’s Food Assessment people of all incomes and ages across all city wards recognized that increased income is the most needed change to improve food access, where a living wage in St. John’s is calculated at $18.85 an hour. Would you support the city of St. John’s in adopting a “living wage policy” to ensure firms contracted directly or subcontracted by the city to provide services pay their employees a living wage?
Town Hall 1
Tom Davis 1:15
This is a very, very complicated question about employment income and how it motivates people. And, you know, as a business owner, especially during COVID, it’s been incredible to see. I don’t know how to put it, but it’s difficult to get people to work. So as a result, I’ve increased my compensation. But you know, to reflect upon the fact that during last summer when CERB was in full place, people could get $2,000 a month, but they were able to make $1,000 a month, and still be able to get the full CERB. So they technically were capable of making $3,000 a month. Now my business is mostly seasonal and it’s students and it’s part time, just the nature of my business. And I was fully transparent that I would work around people to try and help them get their.. still be able to, you know, make $1,000 and then $2000, I still couldn’t get people to work.
I’m not sure exactly how you balance that, how you balance how much just because one of the biggest problems we’re faced with now, especially if you’re in the retail business, is that you’re competing with Amazon, you’re competing with everyone else in the world globally. And so as you drive up your operating costs, and labor’s very significant part of operating cash costs up to 35% plus. So there’s this balance.
That being said, I do believe that people need to be paid as much as we can afford to pay pay them, but keep the doors open and for every business that is different. So it’s very difficult to apply an across the board number. So for me, I do think we have to keep increasing the minimum wage. I think that’s important. But I do think we have to consult with all the different stakeholders and education is the key. We need to encourage people to go seek higher education because that ultimately is the secret to bettering oneself. Thank you.
Steve Parsons 4:08
I have to say that I’m very concerned about food security. That’s a side matter to this, but I just like to say that I’ve thought about that quite a bit, and I’ll be getting into that a little later. But with regards to this question, what’s going to happen with this is with regards to city subcontractors and contractors, when they do up their tenders, they will include in the price of those tenders, the raised labor rate that includes this living wage, so it comes down really to a question of will the taxpayer – because the city is going to pick up the bill for this, it’ll be an increased cost that we have to pay for firefighters and contractors – the question then comes down to will the taxpayer agree to the city paying more for these subcontracted and contracted services? So I think if the taxpayer is okay with that, I don’t have a problem with it, certainly. But ultimately it will go to the taxpayer to be decided, because it’s an added cost.
Anne Malone 6:09
I absolutely agree that the city of St. John’s should be paying anybody who is working for the city a living wage. All of the city staff, especially the managers are paid very healthy salaries. And I do believe that people are worthy. people’s work is worthy of adequate remuneration. Councillors are paid a living wage. And I think that it is only fair and ethical that all workers who work for this city be paid a living wage. Also, I’d like to point out that through my work with the poverty elimination Action Team with the Social Justice Coop, I am aware of the fact that St. John’s is the most food insecure city of its size in the country. In addition to that, with my participation in the Health AAccord, we have learned that the the biggest social determinant for poor health outcomes is poverty. So people in Newfoundland and Labrador have a significant lower lifespan than people in other provinces. So we can sort of extrapolate from that, that we literally have people dying of poverty in this province. And I think that is completely unacceptable. So yes, I support a living wage. Thank you.
Meghan Hollett 8:23
This is an easy one for me to answer. I absolutely support adopting a living wage policy. And this is a position I’ve included already in my platform. And this is something I have supported minimum wage, as well as living wage campaigns for years, including time. Many support groups for this and picket lines and everything else. I strongly believe in this. As a large employer and a large contractor, the city of St. John’s should be using its influence on this issue to be able to lead. No worker working for any company that’s contracted or subcontracted for the city of St. John’s should be expected to try to earn a living based on poverty wages. Firms contracted directly or subcontracted should be paying their employees enough to earn a decent living in this city.
Living wages, of course help people lift them out of poverty, and they bolster the economy by giving families spending money to be able to purchase things at local businesses, and reinvest back in our city. No residents should be forced to work two and three jobs just to be able to make ends meet here. Other cities across Canada have been doing this and they’ve adopted similar policies in both Vancouver and Calgary and most recently Halifax embedded a living wage requirement into procurement policies. So again, the city of St. John’s can be a leader on this here.
Let’s let’s not forget of course, who’s earning a minimum wage. The majority of these people that are earning minimum wage are over 20 years old and the majority of which are female. So we need to keep that in mind. I strongly believe that we can take a living wage policy one step further, and an active social procurement policy that includes supplier code of conduct that factors in diversity, sustainability and equity and hiring policies and prioritizes local businesses
Greg Smith 10:49
Thank you. I completely echo a lot of the sentiment that Megan and had stated, I support a living wage without a question of a doubt if the city is committing to paying its employees generous wages then it should require contractors to pay living wages as well. And I think it’s that plain and it’s that simple. And I think it’s quite important. Also, you know, going forward as a city to make sure that we are equitable, and that we are an inclusive city. And I think that’s one step in doing so and making sure that people have access to proper food, proper housing and making sure they’re paying a decent wage.
Debbie Hanlon 11:59
Hi, I absolutely, yes, easy answer is yes, of course, I would support a living wage policy. I think that it should be a caveat in all of our tenders. And in the outsourcing that we do. I know that it would be passed on to the to the residents, because the city would be paying for the contracts. But it’s a caveat and it’s also a competitive bidding process. So I do believe that it would have a minimal effect to the residents and what resident in Newfoundland wouldn’t want to see their fellow residents living a common good life.
I know what it’s like to have to choose between heat and groceries, because I raised three children on my own, a long time ago. And I know that how difficult and insecure I felt and the supports that are in today are not there. And weren’t there for me. So I would love to see that here for people in Newfoundland and St. John’s and I think as leaders, yes, we absolutely should be the capital city should take the lead on this. And I’m shaming myself, I haven’t gone forward earlier than this. When one of the candidates said that SERB came in and people didn’t want to work? Well, that’s a sad thing to say isn’t it if you’re going to get SERB and you make more money there than the ones who are actually working. I don’t believe that people don’t want to work in Newfoundland. I believe we all want to work. Students – about my daughter as a student and my three children have been students as well. And I know how difficult they have at times to make it work on their small salaries. And I believe that it’s very unfair that people in this city go hungry. And I think the easiest simplest answer is yes, we should make a living wage policy.
But I don’t think we should let the provincial government off either. And that we should be implementing this and lobbying for it to make it mandatory to increase the minimum wage. I am a business owner. I’ve had been a business owner for over 32 years, I’ve employed hundreds of people. And I totally believe in paying people their true value so they can enjoy their lives, just like anyone else. So yes, I absolutely agree that a living wage policy should be put in place in the city of St. John’s. Thank you.
Town Hall 2
Jess Puddister 6:45
Thanks so much, Josh. I want to start by saying that I’ve been a long term supporter of provincially legislated living wage in the province. But in the context of the city, I’d really like to see a list of contracted and subcontracted services that we currently pay for at the municipal level. So I can know the degree to which this is actually a serious issue that we’re facing. The skilled trades and consulting services that we contract out are known to pay their employees a living wage.
I’d actually much sooner take concrete steps toward a social procurement policy to incentivize social enterprises applying for city tenders, ensuring that we are maximizing social impact for every public dollar invested in city services. This would really give a leg up to community groups and supporting marginalized people through programming and valuable work experience.
I’d also love to collaborate with all the municipalities on the Northeast Avalon to create a collaborative approach to this issue. A lot of employees of companies contacted by the city aren’t necessarily from the city, so their cost of living isn’t always the same. This highlights the need to explore cost shared labour and infrastructure investment to reflect the ways that residents on the Northeast Avalon actually live their lives across municipal boundaries. And this also speaks to the need for regional governance and a regional lens to addressing systemic issues like this.
Maggie Burton 8:27
I support a living wage for everybody in the city, be it through the city, or through the city as an employer or provincially, through mandated legislation for everybody. So I’ll just say that right off the bat, and definitely support a living wage policy at the city. I think there are some practical issues we’d have to work collaboratively with staff on and one of the examples actually just mentioned a social procurement policy. So myself and others have already asked that staff do the work to develop that. And as far as I know, it’s underway. So I think that that’s a fabulous idea.
And getting that helps us get more money back into the pockets of people who work with social enterprises, and then they can spend it on food and everything else that they want. So yeah, very few of the city’s employees are currently paid less than a living wage. For the most part, people are unionized, and a living wage policy would have to go through collective bargaining. But for contractors and for direct or indirect contracted work, the city’s significant subcontracts are made through a public tendering process, which is governed by that legislation, of course. So I’d want to talk to the lawyers and Public Works staff, especially at the city, about how that living wage policy would interact with the tendering process because maybe there’s something we’d have to tweak there. It doesn’t always work the way you might expect.
But yeah, living wage is super important. And, you know, for myself, I’ve worked a lot of jobs that have been nowhere near close to living wage and I’ve often had five or six jobs at a time. Before council, I had about six jobs and two little kids to feed. So I just want to recognize it’s extremely important that people get paid enough so that they can support families living here in the city.
Ron Ellsworth 10:29
My answer is very simple – the answer is yes. Yes, everybody has a right to have a living wage. We can preamble this all we want, we can talk around it all we want. Basically, either we support it, or we don’t. I do support it – a lot of my work in the community is done within community centers in low income economic neighborhoods. So I understand the struggles of not being able to get a meaningful wage.
We also need to look deeper, we need to look at why people struggle to get meaningful employment. We must work as a community to remove those barriers for people to allow individuals to find meaningful employment and allow the individual to have a good quality of life. Because you know, the more people who have good quality of life, the better community we have less struggles we have, and the better opportunity we have to be to build a community unto itself, supporting itself. So the short answer is yes, I support the initiative.
Mark House 12:40
I absolutely absolutely do support advocating for a municipal living wage. Because implementing a municipal living wage policy is a way that local governments can directly improve residents lives and put widely held community values into practice. So I’m very much behind that. Most people agree that hard work should be rewarded with adequate pay and benefits, and that people working full time should not be stuck living in poverty.
A municipal living wage policy can help ensure that community values about fair employment practices are reflected in city contracts. And that public initiatives aren’t being subsidized by poverty wages. Poverty is a major contributor to many, many of the problems that affect the overall quality of life in our communities, and puts strain on public resources. So therefore, public livable incomes and benefits not only leads to better lives, for employees and their families, but also reduces the strain on emergency medical care, policing, food banks, housing programs, drug and alcohol programs, and other public services. So I’m all about supporting local business. And if there isn’t enough money to go around for even basic needs of residents to support themselves, they will not be able to even think about supporting the local economy. We need to do better in that regard. And failure to tackle the poverty and exclusion facing millions of families and our children is not only socially reprehensible, but will also weigh heavily on the country’s capacity to sustain economic growth in years to come. So that is where I stand on this issue.
Sandy Hickman 15:03
I would first of all state that I would love to see an increase in the minimum wage to a living wage. What that is where that ends up is beyond the city’s purview. But I certainly support a living wage provincially which would apply, of course to St. John’s.
Now as to your question, I’m open to discussion as to how the policy would work. But it is a difficult thing for any government, especially local government, which has by far the lowest proportion of the tax dollar, to show bias towards one particular supplier or provider. Provisions under the Procurement Act do not allow for any such judgment. It is illegal under the Act for 1) a local government to take any but the lowest bidder and 2) to show favoritism to anyone any one bidder. Further, elected officials have no role to play in procurement, other than officially approved at a public meeting.
Now, having said all that, is there a way to ensure certain firms that provide services are paying a fair wage? A difficult task, but I think we need to come up with a social Procurement Policy and policies that encourage and support that the contractors, builders, and bidders should be involved in this. This has to be policy, it has to be firmed up. There’s no question about that. By ensuring appropriate outsourcing, and a competitive bid process, at the same time, the city will still get competitive bids. But it is incumbent upon the city to come up with a social procurement policy that asks the question, “what is the rate of pay that you’re offering your employees?”
Making the city more accessible [Topics]
Q2: Other than modifications of city-run buildings to enable or improve physical accessibility what should council do to make our city more accessible for cross-disability?
Town Hall 1
Anne Malone 14:33
Well, as I state in my platform, I believe that this city should adopt a universal design policy immediately. And the level of inaccessibility in this city is keeping people in marginalized circumstances. It is dangerous and it is keeping people in poverty, frankly. I also think that in addition to when I speak of accessibility, I’m speaking about intangible things and also tangible things. So when I speak about universal design, I’m talking about the built environment, including all of our active transportation infrastructure. But I’m also talking about access to opportunity. So when I speak about accessibility in the city, I’m including things such as affirmative action employment policies with the city, so that the city itself has on its staff, people who have disabilities, people from the bipoc community, and people from the queer community. I think that these three different minorities all have limited access to opportunity and limited access to employment. So I believe that every system including the invisible systems of our municipal existence, should be fully accessible to all. Thank you.
Tom Davis 16:18
Twenty percent of Newfoundlanders have some form of disability, and that’s only going to increase with our aging population. So we have to address this head on, we have to make our city as accessible as possible. Obviously, we have to balance that with the some of our older buildings are difficult to renovate. But in your any new builds, you know, we need to double down and make sure that, that we also educate businesses and groups about the importance of having it because of 20% is an increasing number, then, you know, it’s in everybody’s best interest to make their locations acessible for their customers and for their residents. So, you know, I think the city has the ability now with building codes and to, you know, to double down on that, and to make sure that we that we make the city as accessible as possible.
When we make these decisions, obviously, we’ve got to be sensitive. You know, you have small business owners, new business owners trying to start businesses, so we do have to work hand in hand and try and have that balance, which is difficult, but as a business owner who’s had to perform, I know that at the end of the day. At the end of the day, I’m glad that I do it. So some of the regulations that at the time when especially when you’re a new business owner, you know, you’re complaining the city’s making me do this making me do that health and safety, accessibility. But in the long run, it’s a good investment.
So you know, I think that applies to our public policies, and I know, the new Mews Centre, a big reason for doing the new center was also so that everybody could take advantage of it, make it more accessible. So, you know, 100% supportive, and I think there’s a lot of education that we need to put out, and I’m looking forward to engaging with the different stakeholders to try and learn more.
Meghan Hollett 20:08
Accessibility isn’t a matter of the city should do this, or they should do that. I think it’s a must. And it’s an absolute imperative. It’s something that we need to centre people first. Absolutely. And I want to give a huge thank you to fellow candidate Anne Malone for teaching me so much about this in recent years, and creating space and helping me understand this so much better. I also want to give a shout out to the inclusion Advisory Council, that are all volunteer members that sit for the city of St. John’s, including Taylor Stocks, who’s done a lot of work in recent times to help lead the this particular Advisory Council.
The city of St. John’s should empower our communities. And that includes the Inclusion Advisory Council, we should be listening to their guidance and making decisions based on their lived experience. And it’s not just a feel good exercise. We have to make sure that we keep all of these things in mind when we make any kind of decision at all.
Some examples of the things that I would imagine is making sure that we have vision zero considerations in street design and making roads safer for everybody. Drivers, walkers, cyclists, any way at all that people want to get around. Better quality public transportation, that means that you can get around effectively and affordably. It also means expanding sidewalk snow clearing that we’re hearing so much about on the door. I’m sure everybody in this room is hearing that. I’m making sure that we deal with sidewalk curb cuts and ramps as we’re doing any kind of infill work on sidewalks, and universality in design and making sure that there is training for city staff and contractors so that they understand the implications of these pieces.
Steve Parsons 22:26
Yeah, I don’t think anybody’s going to disagree with any changes being made where they can be made to help the disabled. There’s some things we can do immediately. With regards to just small things like high visibility paint on crosswalks. The city’s done pretty good with their curb program where they enable easy access for wheelchairs to get up and down over curbs at various intersections. That should continue, we should look at where possible making audio devices part of the signal apparatus that we have for intersections and that type of thing.
I’m pretty impressed with the hiring practices of the city to tell you the truth I work with the handicapped – actually, there’s a number of women on my snow clearing shift. And I’ll tell you, they do a pretty good job. Now, if I had to get into the sidewalk issue, believe me, it’s gonna take a lot more than two minutes to go through that. But hey, I’m willing to discuss that if anybody wants to go there. But it’s a very, very complicated matter. I cleared sidewalks. And let me tell you, it’s brutal. But again, getting back to the topic. Yeah, I mean, everything that we can do possible to make it easier for people with disabilities.
I think it’s great. I think we should we should really look at these issues. And with regards to new infrastructure and stuff like that the departments that are responsible should definitely incorporate some planning and looking at what can be done in new buildings and that type of thing.
Debbie Hanlon 24:55
I’m so interested in listening to everybody. Accessibility is not a privilege, it is a basic human right. And we all deserve the right to enjoy our city and everything it offers. So I’m very pleased to say that I was part of the council that brought in a new inclusive committee. And I know we’ve got a long, long way to go, I’d only be joking to say that we didn’t, but it acts as a lens to guide us to decision making, because that inclusive committee now looks at everything the city does – every department, every action from development, to housing, to tourism, to events. So it’s very important that that be there.
Is it enough? Absolutely not. We are a city that has a lot of snow. And I know there’s issues with snow clearing. But I’d like to see us do what we do right now really, really well before we start expanding it and making promises to expand it but not doing it very well. Because again, accessibility is a common right that everyone should enjoy. There’s lots of more work to be done.
The accessibility committee is awesome. The volunteers are top notch, and they come with full hearts and open minds. And they bring great suggestions. And, you know, accessibility again, there’s many areas that we can improve – not just our buildings, but we’ve seen it in the pedestrian mall, we see that when we did the Rawlins Cross event, when we actually brought somebody out who was visually impaired and we saw for the first time, “oh, you know, coming up to the push buttons it’s hard to see them. So we got this walking app that could help you know, so different people have these issues and are challenged every day of their lives. They’re the ones we should be learning from.
My friend has MS and when we go out and I am her “plus one”, I realize how difficult it is even to get into buildings. And it sure is great to have these parking permits for people and to help them along. But there’s so much more we can do. From our buildings to our streets to everyday life. It’s so much harder for other people, and we don’t realize it, you know, we really don’t until – as they say -you walk a mile in someone’s shoes – roll in a chair for for a period of time, and then you’ll see how difficult it is. So this is a city has a right to all its citizens and I’m for that.
Greg Smith 27:29
Thank you. I believe we need to invest more an inclusive and accessible infrastructure. I’d like to note I do recognize it’s important to elevate the voices of those with lived experience, and not to speak for or over others with disabilities. So I did have discussions with a great person in our community for advocacy and accessibility with mobility. And also I commend our fellow candidate Anne Malone for their incredible advocacy.
As a pedestrian myself, I’d like to see an effective sidewalk snow clearing plan so that people can commute safely throughout our city year round. More accessible busing, and buses with audible and visual stops like other major cities across North America, more audible crosswalks and visibility lines and stairs, and ensuring the approval of decks and other features on the pedestrian mall are accessible, and additionally advocating for current businesses to become accessible to foster inclusive neighborhoods for everyone. For me, accessibility ought to be at the forefront, not an afterthought. And I think it needs to make sure that this city is for each and every one of us. And I think mobility is a human right. And making sure that you get around safely in your community has personal impact and economic impact. It’s important for each and every one of us to feel safe in the city that we call home.
Town Hall 2
Mark House 17:39
Well, wanting to support cross disability in the city is the basic right of people with disabilities to control and direct their own lives to participate actively in society is key. They minimize reliance on others in decision making and performance of everyday activities. And they’re limited only in the same ways that people without disabilities are limited. So the greatest degree of choice about where to live or who they live with, how to live and how to use the time, taking risks to succeed or fail and taking responsibility for their own decisions should be up to the disabled individual. The social roles that they play, working, owning a home raising a family, engaging leisure, recreational activities, and participating to the extent one chooses to all aspects of human life.
I think I’m more about supporting independent living centers or Centers for Independent Living – consumer controlled, community based private nonprofit agencies, which really help out in these situations. They’re operated by people with disabilities, and they provide independent living services. They empower people with all types of disabilities to live more independently and have control over their lives. So these independent living centers governing boards include the majority of people who are living with these disabilities. So these people can best help out those with disabilities in how they can carry on. They share their successes, they help them decide what’s best for them, and they emphasize services to cross disability consumer population, and they can peer model as they understand where the person with a disability comes from. Provision in core services as information and referral, peer counseling, independent living skills, training, individual advocacy, and educate community advocacy.
Sandy Hickman 22:23
An important area of concern. This covers all aspects – of course, it includes not just physical standards, and we’ve heard some comments already. The city of course has been following National Building Code and ascribes to the concept of universal design for its facilities – certainly its new facilities. With existing buildings, accessibility concerns are being addressed. And in the case of two of our recreation centers, rather than renovate and adjust, we replaced. The Mews Centre and Paul Reynolds Centre of course are much higher standard for universal accessibility.
We’ve also taken great steps in other areas – curb cuts, much lower slope, wider openings, intersections and crosswalks. If you look at Water Street, that’s exactly what’s happening down there. It’s much more accessible than the old standards. Step pads hae been installed over the years at crosswalks to assist the visually impaired. And one of the things that is fairly new is a program of quite new crosswalk signal technology, which offers the visually impaired an app to call for the crossing sequence, with an audible signal.
The city has undertaken all of these things, and it has to do more. It has to continue the good things and more intersections, more streets. And I think that’s the first step. We also need our traffic engineers who work and recreation staff that are involved in serving the special needs populations, to research the latest technology and work with especially community organizations, as they offer probably more expertise that we have, and will often be much more knowledgeable and aware of leading edge technology. So that’s very important for the city to be doing that. So the research, this kind of research to allow the city to target for enhancements to building civil works and other concerns that impact people with disabilities.
But I also want of course mentioned that Metrobus can move forward I think into the modern era with things such as audible notations for bus stops and other technologies that are out there.
Maggie Burton 25:18
I firmly believe that everyone ought to be able to access, use and engage with buildings and services, regardless of their age, their ability, their income, their race, or their gender. It’s not happening right now unfortunately, It’s essential that the city ensure our own services are acceptable and accessible. So that has to be done first and foremost. I’m grateful to fellow candidate Anne Malone and many other incredible disability advocates in St. John’s for their work. And some people have already mentioned some others. And I really do believe that “nothing about us without us” should be more than just a slogan, and accessibility can’t be an afterthought. It has to be a commitment.
In my first term, we’ve integrated the city’s Inclusion Advisory Committee into a wider range of decision making, and ensured that all of our major infrastructure projects are reviewed by them before decisions are made. So I think that’s really great. We’ve also added to and expanded the role of that committee. And I think we can continue to work on that as well. And from my conversations with advocates within the community, I think that the top outcomes by 2025, for me would be ensuring equitable trail access is in place. As well as introducing Metro bus stop announcements and improving the number of accessible transit, accessible Metro buses that are there and improving the paratransit system as well. I also think that we can make improvements to the pedestrian mall and remove sidewalk obstructions, whatever they may be, and fix curb cuts. I think we can also focus on ensuring that private and public accessible housing units are either approved or financed depending on the situation.
And yeah, these changes are all within municipal control, and they will significantly improve accessibility across the entire city. And of course, I’ll continue to listen and learn from members of the [?equal?] diverse and disability community and hope to make more improvements during this term.
Ron Ellsworth 27:24
Obviously, a stronger commitment to universal design is one of the keys to move the city forward. We’re all looking at it from the same viewpoint, we’re all looking at it from the same lens. So I understand that from a moving forward point of view. But the reality is, we also need to work backwards and apply the universal design concepts, techniques, not only structures, but everything that we do in the city.
The city keeps talking about all the great work that’s being done. But yet we’ve seen the pedestrian mall again fail when it came to being opened up and accessibility being primary on the lens to make sure it’s there. I’m not sure why advocates in the community have to go back every time and go back and raise this issue – it got missed this time, it got missed the last time. It just means we’re not paying attention.
What I would do is I would mandate all council members, senior staff to do a mandatory training to be educated and to learn about accessibility, what accessibility actually means and why it’s actually a daily challenge for people to overcome inaccessibility. We have an aging population, along with many in our community facing challenges. And this only will get stronger and more needing of resources dedicated to it. It’s only when decision makers have a good understanding can you make good decisions towards accomplishing a more accessible community.
My long service in the community working in accessibility to championing causes moving things forward is well known I make no excuse for that. I’ve had great champions in the community alongside of me, the late Johnny Dunn, Bill Westcott, Tina and Cecil Witten, Susan [?Wells?] to name a few. It’s very sad that such a small portion of the city’s budget is allocated to deal with accessibility issues. For me, I’ll continue to listen, to learn and to be educated on the challenges that are facing the members of our community.
Supporting community groups (tackling cost of required insurance for gatherings) [Topics]
Q3 Over the past few years the city has started to require prohibitively expensive insurance coverage as part of receiving permits for community events and other initiatives on city property. How would you address this? And are there other ways you would like to see the city support community and neighbourhood groups?
Town Hall 1
Meghan Hollett 29:28
Thank you, Julia. So I think it’s important that we make sure that we’re not forcing community groups and individuals to do something that’s unsafe because of hurdles that we force people to go through. So holding something as a simple cultural gathering, they shouldn’t have to face these kinds of hurdles. So let’s look at the punitive barriers that people face when they’re trying to share their culture. Let’s look at how this impacts the connective tissue of people in our city.
And so oftentimes for me, I look at things like is there a cooperative way around this? How can we work cooperatively to get around this problem? So, you know, I like to think about is there a cooperative insurance policy that the city can participate to help reduce the burden on community groups to maintain these kind of safe activities for everybody, so we can celebrate everybody.
In terms of other ways, I’d like to the city to support community groups, I’d like to sit down with community groups, particularly ones that I may not be a part of, and make sure that I reach out beyond groups that I’m familiar with, and hear directly from them about what they would like to see. And I’d like the city to sit down once a quarter and host an FAQ for community organizations to provide information. community groups are volunteers many times and they’re offering their time such as you folks tonight with Happy City, thank you so much.
Community groups shouldn’t have to dig for this information. It should be readily available and the city should be sharing it. I think that community groups, communities really flourish when we have spaces to gather places to get together that are accessible and barrier free. And that also includes financial barriers.
Debbie Hanlon 31:42
Thanks. I understand insurance coverage for special events can also be a financial barrier for community groups and not for profit organizations, I would really have to take a closer look at the impacts of not offering this type of insurance. And would it have on these community groups, and whether or not we could drastically affect the ability for these groups to operate – determine whether the financial benefit would be truly realized by the city.
So I think fundamentally, we need to make it easier for community organizations and groups – to echo a lot what Meghan said – and cultural gatherings to be able to function in our city and to be able to go ahead, and this needs to actually be less of a barrier for them, and fundamentally something that is going to allow them to do well. And we need to ensure that our policies, and what we’re doing by law is, is doing just that. So I think that this needs to be examined with a fine tooth comb. And I think that working with these groups firsthand and hear their needs is going to put us in the right direction, for sure.
Tom Davis 33:11
Well, I come at it from two different angles as a business that does supply some services to the city, they require a set $5 million coverage. And then when people rent our services, and we go to community center, then we just provide a proof and then those individuals don’t have to pay extra we cover it, but it’s all part of our our blanket policy. But the other angle is my wife and I organize Miles for Smiles walks, and every year, we have to get the special events permit and there’s insurance. It’s really not – off the top of my head I believe it was like $50 or $75, it wasn’t really prohibitive that insurance coverage. I’m not sure if that’s changed a lot. I do know that the city last year its insurance doubled. And that obviously has become a pretty significant issue. I believe it doubled from around $400,000 to $800,000 off the top my head. So you know, litigation is becoming bigger, it’s becoming more of a liability for the city. So we end up trying to find that balance. But we definitely need to support. You know, I’ve been lucky to be able to participate in a lot of these incredible cultural events with different outfits from traditional places that people have come from, and the food and we have to do whatever we can to encourage the multiculturalism. And you know, if this insurance has gotten to a point that is prohibitive, we need to look at it I’m sure there are solutions. But if we’re talking about a 50 or $75 charge to do an event for a day. I’m not sure that that’s the concern. So I apologize. I was really busy, didn’t get a chance to look into that question.
Debbie Hanlon 35:08
Thank you. I’m really glad you asked this question because it was one I didn’t really know enough about. However, I did put off an event called Rainbow many years ago and I had 4000 people sign up. I wasn’t a councillor then but I availed of the city’s insurance Assistance Program. And the total cost to me to do that event for 4000 people was $75. And I reached out to find out if that had changed and it hasn’t changed in many, many years. So that policy still there. The city has an assisted insurance program for groups for many years, which is independent of the city’s insurance program. But insurance can also be purchased through special events or other channels. And it’s called user group insurance. And to qualify, that group just cannot carry its own insurance. So it needs to piggyback on another insurance. And some of the numbers are quite reasonable, in my opinion. So you can have up to 100 to 250 people and the cost if you have no alcohol is $125. And then if you have 250 to 500 or more, the cost is $310. And if these events are arts and crafts or cultural, trhen they are significantly lower, less than $50, actually. So it seems to me that the policies the city has is fairly good. So I’d like to know… again, back to one of the candidates, and I can’t remember which one it was – I was so enjoying all the answers – who said if these barriers are there, we should look to remove them. And also it’s probably the education piece to get the information out to the public about how this can run, and how you can do these these events and cost you less. And I’m also a believer, and I know the city has done this before – when we wave these in lieu of giving donations so the city can help many ways. We want to see more cultural events, we wanted to see more neighborhood organizations. And I’m all for, you know, street festivals and neighborhood events. And you know, I live downtown, and we’re starting to have them and they’re becoming part of the fabric of Newfoundland. And so if the city is in any way hampering that then we need to change it, but I don’t think we are.
Anne Malone 37:37
I will answer this question. But I really have to address a couple of things on the accessibility conversation. I have promised people who I am representing that I will be uncompromising. And that’s why I’m doing this. One of my roles is to be an educator. So firstly, we have to be very, very careful of the language we use around accessibility. And there is there is language that is no longer appropriate. And everybody in public office should be aware of that. That’s the first thing. The second thing is the city and the province are in quite serious financial straits. When we read a spreadsheet, we not only have to look at what the cost is, we also have to look at what the value is derived from spending that money. We also have to look at what the liability might be if we do not invest in accessibility. I don’t say that disability rights are human rights just because it’s a catchy slogan, I’m saying it because it’s a legal fact. For over 50 years, there’s been strenuous advocacy in this city, and the outcomes are deplorable. We do have an Inclusion Advisory Committee that is peopled by very capable individuals, they don’t have any muscle. They are always always telling the council that we need universal design. City Hall itself is not sight inclusive. With regard to insurance I think that many of our cultural events and our arts related events derive great benefit for both the city and the province. And I think that that can probably be leveraged for financial assistance if we require it. Debbie, I was really interested in what you had to say that there might be some kind of misunderstanding about that. I think that if smaller organizations especially cultural organizations, we are an international city, they are a growing population… even if things could happen wherein we could provide spaces where two or more events could take place at the same time in the same space so that the cost could be shared among groups if necessary, that would also be a really positive step forward.
Steve Parsons 40:36
Oh, yeah, Councillor Hanlon is totally correct with regards to insurance for outside groups. There are options available. Everything the city does, is looked upon with regards to safety and liability. We’ve got buildings full of paperwork that are there for that very fact, to cover us for our liability requirements and our safety requirements. Unfortunately, this is one of those issues that goes to the provincial government. And I’ve got no problem confronting the provincial government because, as Hope Jamieson said in a piece recently our hands are being tied behind our backs with a lot of city operations that the province just won’t allow us to complete. With regards to insurance, the Commissioner of Insurance Oversight has to start actually doing their job up there, and making sure that the municipalities aren’t forced to seek reinsurers for their insurance policies, which drives up costs extraordinarily. And again, like I say, this is a provincial matter, and councillors have got to get the guts to confront the province on this. As far as the city is concerned, we do everything possible we can to actually limit our liability in every way. And it’s a credit to the city staff and workers that we’ve had no fatalities and we’ve got really good records for safety.
Town Hall 2
Sandy Hickman 30:00
First of all, let’s note the city mandates all groups using city facilities protect themselves and of course taxpayers’ assets. This is a normal practice in municipalities, and it is critical that individuals involved have protection against liability. Now indeed, the cost is negligible for regular user groups or large groups as this will be blended into their overall policy and/or could be extended at little or no cost. But one off events run by nonprofits or individuals can be a concern, as you’ve noticed, but the city does have a program called user group insurance, which offers affordable rates. For instance, a small group under 25 participants would pay $35. But these massive insurance costs are really not applicable was I say, to small scale events. But [?no matter?] this is a litigious society that we live in here, the city would be irresponsible if it didn’t ensure volunteer organizations were protected. To move on from insurance, the city does assist in other ways. But I feel that we need to ramp some of this up. And one of those ways is through staff time. Our professional staff cover all areas have a great deal of expertise and leadership in their fields. This has to be enhanced, I think, to take a little more off the shoulders of volunteers. Our staff have the time, they have expertise, they can get a little bit more involved, I think and help some of the organizations. And I also want to point out one other very important thing that we do as a city and that is provide community grants. This is a huge help in providing seed money to organizations and individuals such as artists. This gives them a kickstart and provides credibility in approaching the corporate sector and the federal and provincial governments. Quite often this municipal financial support and endorsement is a requirement for accessing further funding. My position on this is clear. And I’ve stated many times that we feel it is the best money we spend. As the organizations have the expertise in their areas, they can undertake the work much more cheaply and effectively that the city ever could. But I also have maintained that we should be slowly topping up this program [and opening emails to each organization?].
Ron Ellsworth [32:25]
Thank you, Josh, It has been alluded by previous speakers that it’s not necessarily the cost of insurance itself. It’s also the process, people got to go through the red tape the people work, figure who they got to go see who they got to get permits from all those things with not just the cost of the insurance. It’s the red tape that we’ve created. Obviously, as a city, we have got a liability issue that we need to maintain and look after. So I’m certainly going to go through those pieces. We need to work to remove those barriers, we need to provide assistance and when groups are trying to get into a community and access facilities. Why are we making it harder for people to give back to our community is the question and that’s not only issue for the City of St John’s. I volunteered in schools or coached in schools and faced the same challenges, same issues, with liability seeming to be the driving force. And we forget what we’re trying to do in our community by servicing our community. We need to work with community groups, community groups, many of them who are volunteers working to make our community a better place, we should be able to purchase a blanket policy that will assist organizations rather than have them come in and make another application. Another application. Another application. For example, when I was on council previously, if any smaller groups were looking to access to for meetings, I would actually book the meeting in my name, I would attend the meeting. Therefore they were covered in because it was a council [?piece?]. I’ve been volunteering at the Shea Heights Community Center for about 15 years. I sit on the board in Shea Heights and we look after events in the community in Shea Heights. How we get around it up there is that a board member attends the event is a board sanctioned event and therefore we get away from the issue of insurance and liability. So there’s ways we can find solutions. If we want to. If we want to make it easier for community groups, we can find all solutions and working together. So it’s through collaboration, meaningful engagement, we can understand the challenges and remove the barriers.
Maggie Burton 34:35
I’ve talked to lots of community groups and individuals within them about this issue over the years and I know it’s a it’s a really frustrating one for sure. We are really fortunate at the city to be able to work with so many active community and neighborhood groups such as the Georgetown Neighborhood Association whose engagement in participation makes our city a better place for everybody to live and work and play. At the same time. It is really important to ensure that these groups in the city are protected against any potential liability. It’s really, really, really important. I can’t overstate it, that people have appropriate insurance to cover themselves in the event of an unfortunate incident. So the root of this problem, of course, is that provincial and federal governments provide limited assistance for injury victims. When someone gets hurt at an event, they can actually lose their career and require around the clock care. And that can cost easily millions of dollars on the taxpayer. And our liability rules mean that event hosts are often found responsible for that loss rather than the social safety net itself. The city is happy to make its spaces available to community groups for as low as a cost as we possibly can but we do expect groups to cover the liability risk associated with their event. Many groups already have that commercial general liability insurance that covers risks. And for those that don’t have insurance, we do have a special assistance program that reduced the cost as much as we can. That cost depends on the event how many people are there, and if you have alcohol or not. Insuring an event with 400 people and alcohol costs about$300 bucks and with no alcohol costs about $35. And during the term of council, we reverse the previous council’s decision to charge money for using the Foran Green rooms [in City Hall]. So that made one extra space available for the public. Anyway, I think there’s a lot to improve about the city. But I think that our approach on this is actually quite reasonable. I’d rather use the money to improve sidewalks.
Jess Puddister 36:53
Thanks. So I reached out to a friend of mine who works in insurance to get their perspective on this question. And it was really helpful discussion for me. So in the past three to five years, we’ve been in what’s called a hard market. And that means it’s not only extremely expensive, but it’s also limited in coverage. So when you’re looking for insurance that needs to cover requirements, you can be limited in your options of what carrier to go with. This isn’t the fault of the city, but it’s also still very frustrating for the community. And we do have to find a solution. I’d like to look into what kind of coverage is required – is it reasonable? We have staff whose job it is to research and advise on policy in this area. I actually tried to track down Betty Clark today she’s the city’s Risk Manager. But I didn’t have any luck today. You know, I think city property should be accessible for community organizing. And I’m definitely committed to exploring all avenues and making that a reality. The good news is that the market is starting to soften is showing very early signs of that and when it does, prices will go down some and coverage should broaden. I’d like to look at what is working well for more established groups to make sure that all community and neighborhood groups looking to use city property have a comprehensive list of places to look for insurance. And in terms of supporting the community and neighborhood groups to expand in our city. I’d like to see Ward councillors nurture the initiation of community groups and find key people in their Ward to be involved and promote things like neighborhood associations, recreation cleanups and other events. And I really hope I get the opportunity to support Ward councillors in this kind of effort.
Mark House 38:47
Alright, Thanks, Josh. was everybody has already said that we live in a world now where it all comes down to liability, liability liability, and risk management. And so the city needs to protect itself from liability and as well as everybody that uses city facilities. The city needs to protect its facilities just like a business does. And even though there have been some few lawsuits that have come, you know, not Vegas, nonprofits are the other way around. It hasn’t happened very often. But still the insurance is necessary to be had even though the city owns several properties that are used by the community and they need to be able to be used in more initiatives in that way. A community group pays insurance for their own coverage while using the facility for their own protection. So even though it might be frustrating for them, they need to protect themselves and the money is not you know obviously money doesn’t go to the city coffers, but it goes to the insurance company so the city is limited in the in the amount of how much money is is charged. We live in an age where public liability is huge issue, and is a necessity as well as a hindrance for everyone. The city is limited in finding an alternative that will satisfy everyone. But I’m sure by working together we can find a more reasonable solution. The city does have some assistance programs, and they can waive other potential fees in lieu of a donation and community groups could possibly get together and share costs of a facility while maintaining appropriate distance and so on.
The future of transit [topics]
Q4 Consultants hired to study our transit pre COVID found St. John’s had worse transit coverage than 10 other comparable Canadian cities, and called for improvements like free transit for school students, and frequency improvements that would eventually have cost an extra $2 million a year. In addition, the city is currently drafting plans to switch to electric buses – the federal government won’t pay for more diesel buses much longer. While this will save money long term, it costs more to buy each bus, and there will be training and other costs. The city has currently chosen to cut $500,000 dollars from MetroBus’s budget, however, which seems certain to make the service worse than it already is. Do you feel this is necessary? Or would you find the money needed to implement the improvements that have been suggested?
Town Hall 1
Debbie Hanlon 44:05
It’s gonna be hard to answer this one in two minutes. I just recently got appointed to the Transportation Committee so I’ve got a lot to learn. But I am learning and enjoying the process. The city didn’t really choose, it was a financial challenging time, probably one of the worst in their history, when all departments were chosen, had to go and look at their budgets and cut where they could. And we had to. So that’s one thing. Second thing is the city as part of our green plan we are going to convert to entirely electric buses, however, is no sense in us running out and buying buses if we don’t have the infrastructure or the plan in place for that. So we’re working on the plan right now. Around mid to late 2022 when we’ll have that plan in place. So then we will be aware of the infrastructure required, the size of the buses, how long the buses will last, how big they will be – the different things, the knowledge that we’ll gain from the plan before we implement, will be essential to our success. So we need to, you know, even storage of the buses and the and the the electric stations, and where the buses are stored, maybe we’ll see reduction in routes, maybe we’ll see more users on the bus, there’s lots of things that will come out of that plan that I feel will help direct Metrobus and paratransit into the right direction. We’re not aware of the uncertainties yet. But we will be when we devise this plan, it’s all part of a holistic approach to it, we can’t just rush right in and do one thing without having the knowledge to back it up. And also, we really don’t know … we applied for funding last year, but we weren’t successful in getting it for our Go Buses. But they are on the forefront. I’m very proud of the Council and the way we worked together to make this happen. The plan is being implemented and are being worked upon. When it comes forward, then we’ll have a knowledge base to grow from, and we’ll implement our electric buses, but Newfoundland is moving towards electric buses. And one more small thing – if we regionalize and more of the communities that avail of our services outside of the city of St. John’s come on board we will have more power when we go to the federal and provincial government to have more funding, which is what we need here. And we need more users on the bus like we did with the kids under 12. And then hopefully the UPass for Memorial University.
Anne Malone 46:51
I think that if the city were to proceed with that cut, they would be creating an enormous potential liability for themselves. In 2015, I won a human rights case against a cab company for denying me and my guide dog access to a cab. An adjudicator questioned me closely about how I felt about that, what the impacts of that were upon me, etc, etc. All those impacts were monetized. And for a three minute event, I was awarded $5,000. So if a group or an individual in this city started filing human rights challenges against the very real human rights violations that continue to take place the effect could be massive. So I think one of the things that we need to consider with regard to busing and increasing ridership are the basic, very basic accommodation of year round, accessible sidewalks. The second thing I would say is that there are other initiatives we can take to increase active transportation, walking or biking. In other cities, they have now have apartment buildings for people who do not have cars. There is no parking whatsoever attached to these apartments and condominiums, the rents are lower. And the whole idea is to create incentives for people to use public transit and get off car culture. I think that would be incredibly interesting to look at in St. John’s. In addition to that, I think that in the accessible Canada Act, which was enacted a couple of years ago many of the infrastructural deficits that we have here will have to be addressed by 2035. And if they are, and I hope they will be that will, in itself generate a more energetic sort of public transit user base.
Steve Parsons 49:26
On the topic of electric buses. I’d like to see some more data on that with regards to their range, how often they had to be recharged, the effect of cold temperatures on them, and if that would have an effect on scheduling for the services. With regards to Metrobus – I’m not on the Transportation Committee, obviously, but I would like to see the data attached to usership and see which routes were actually getting ridership on and large volumes of people actually using the service, and which ones were only getting the odd passenger. That would be the first thing. I mean we’re going to be forced to take the subsidy route from the province and the federal government with regards to transportation services, because we’re falling under that umbrella where to meet our carbon requirements under their regime, things like this have to be looked at. So what they have to understand is that all the cities across Canada are different. And the things that affect us as a community are different than the things that affect Halifax. And I think they should be prepared to bend in that and allow us to sort of move at our own pace. And if they do, we might be able to come up with a viable solution for this.
Greg Smith 51:29
Hello, thank you. I’m a transit user. I’ve never owned a car, nor did my parents, I use Metro bus to get to and from services and work. I know route 2 like the back of my hand honestly. And I would not support the cuts that we are seeing to Metrobus in last year’s budget, I would like to see free transit for all, but at this time, I genuinely don’t see it as a sustainable option, or one that doesn’t put the burden on taxpayers of all socio economic backgrounds. I think we need to see more routes, more direct routes, originating from key destination points and higher frequency of routes, that’ll ensure we have a connected city via transit, that will in turn result in more people living here, especially post university. I think we need to continue to work actively with other levels of government both bilaterally and trilaterally. And make sure that they assist us in investments in green infrastructure, including electric busing. I think that having a city fundamentally that each and every one of us can get around via transit is very important. And I think that if we don’t actually take that into account, in our budgeting, and we don’t take that into account, in our future, then we’re actually going to hinder our population growth . I think that a lot of people that come here for university and a lot of people that move to St. John’s, whether they’re from wherever they really are thinking that our transit is a lot lackluster compared to other cities. I’ve been in Halifax many times, and I’ve traveled there. And I’ve actually used transit to get around Halifax. And I really commend Debbie Hanlon’s wording saying that we need a more regional approach. And yes, we do. We need all of the Northeast Avalon municipalities to come together and make sure that we have effective transit as a metropolitan region. That’s key, it’s pivotal. And I think this the way that we can move forward as a city is making sure that we have good transit for each and every one of us.
Tom Davis 53:58
Since 2002, the city has over doubled their spending by 115% during that time period and inflation was 40 to 48%. So we have a spending problem. Obviously, a lot of that is contagious, or I’m not sure where it came from – the province has the exact same challenge. So we do need to reduce our costs. Labor’s by far the biggest part of our spending. And I believe that we’ve got to somehow control the budget. With our economy, the way it’s evolving Newfoundland’s economy and as we move away from greenhouse gas, fossil fuel burning, unfortunately for Newfoundland and Labrador where, you know, at one time, up to 40% of our revenue for the provincial government came from fossil fuels. Now we have unfortunately – there’s no real easy way to to offset that. So unfortunately Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and residents of the city need to realize that there’s gonna be less money going around for everybody. And part of that, unfortunately, is going to mean an erosion of wages either directly, somehow, by reducing compensation over time, which I believe is really the only solution. Because you know, this year, we’ve got a $14 million deficit. Next year, property values are down 4.5%. So we have to we have to tackle it. And it’s gonna be difficult. And I hope that our employees – they are excellent employees – because we do have incredible employees – are going to sit down, and we’re all going to collaboratively come together and figure out a way to run this city in a way that’s sustainable long term. However, greenhouse gases are real. And fossil fuels are real. And climate change is real. And if Newfoundland was a country it would be the fifth highest polluter in the world, 20 tons per capita, there are other options. Newfoundland is looking at hydrogen – green hydrogen would be the best choice. And if we are able to do hydrogen, hydrogen buses actually have the same runtime as a diesel bus. To Steve’s point, electric buses get around a 14 hour run time. That’s best case scenario – light loads – which obviously we don’t want. I used to have a business downtown, I used to take the Metro bus down there, it was great, very convenient. I think we need to find a way to encourage people to do that. We need to get them to get away from this car culture that Anne Malone mentioned. Thank you.
Meghan Hollett 56:30
Thanks, Julia. This doesn’t have to be an either or situation. The reality is across Canada right now, transit is moving towards becoming electric. I think we do need to have some critical improvements now to Metrobus that includes the auditory cues to make the buses more accessible, so people know when they’re getting off – what stop they are at. And this also includes increased frequency that has been talked about in that Dillon report. I think we need to remember that Metrobus is an essential service, it is not a nicety, but it is an essential service. And if we want to have a more sustainable city, we need to have a reliable bus system. If we want to have a more accessible and affordable city, we need to have a strong transit system. I do not agree with cuts to the Metrobus budget, I would support finding alternative sources of revenue to make these essential improvements. Be that through partnerships with Memorial University, or federal or provincial government, I think we should also be celebrating Metrobus and the services that it offers. And the folks that are working there. Recognizing that some of the drivers I have met over the years are folks that speak many great languages. And they’re so welcoming to folks as we get on the bus. And making sure that people realize that there are safety stops that you can use. If at nighttime you feel nervous about getting off the bus at a certain place, knowing that you can pull that cordwherever it’s safe for the driver to stop. That’s something that not a lot of people know. So I think that these are big pieces. I also know many people that are retail workers that can’t afford to say no to shifts on a Sunday night for financial reasons, single parents raising two kids, but there is no transit available to them on Sunday night. So they’re in a sticky situation. I also know people that are HR managers in retail department stores and they know that if somebody is relying on the bus and if they miss the bus for whatever reason, they’re an hour late. So I think this impacts housing options, it impacts employment opportunities and affordable living overall.
Town Hall 2
Maggie Burton: 41:51
Thank you, Josh. So first of all, every resident in the city deserves to be able to get around the city safely. And for a lot of people that’s going to require a better public transit system. To be a vibrant modern city, we need an interconnected active transport and public transit network. And they both have to come I think side by side so that people can leave their house, get to the bus stop and then get to the destination and get home. So I hope people see a little bit more these days about how being able to get out of your house in the wintertime, for example, is completely integral to a functional transit system. St. John’s wasn’t designed or built for public transit. But it absolutely has great routes and areas that could be further enhanced andsome areas that could I think use a lot of help developing a transit culture around them. But the problem that we have is that our service on those routes is very infrequent. We’re operating only about half as many buses as we did 30 years ago. Not many people know that. Even though the city has massively expanded. With bad service like that Metrobus is only getting a fraction of the ridership that we might on our 1400 kilometers of roads. This is a big opportunity for us. So I think that we can improve service on high potential routes and ridership and ticket revenue would go up. And that would help further subsidize things like electrification, the initial service increase pays for itself. That’s what happened with the recent budget cut. So council didn’t cut service levels, it actually improved them in many respects, increasing ticket revenue allowed us to cut the subsidy. I think it would have been wiser to reinvest those savings in Metrobus itself, and to implement the frequent transit network. I’m hoping that in the next year, we’ll be able to implement that Frequent Transit Network phase one, and that would double frequencies on the five key routes in the recommendations of the consultants review that was mentioned in the question. So that’s step one, and I can’t wait to go from there.
Sandy Hickman 43:48
Certainly transit is a key service in any city our size. I will agree we don’t have the best service. But it has been improving in many ways. The question actually throws several issues at us. But let me first clarify that Metrobus is moving towards electric buses down the road. But first of all, is developing a plan towards that. And I do understand that there are various studies that have criticism offered but they are a little bit unfair. Again, if the parameters include topography, ancient road patterns, narrow single lane roads, heavy wind, sodden, heavy drifting snow as factors. Perhaps some of them did include those parameters. I don’t know. These factors can constrain our system and require ingenuity and unfortunately, money to overcome. I don’t know where Metrobus ranks in terms of percent subsidy, but has crept up over the years to the point where it is quite concerning. So we have a lot of work to do. And by creating a more efficient service, it will actually help cut down on the subsidy. One of the things I’ve always maintained is that the routes are part of the problem. There’s too many routes, not enough frequency, and maybe not the right routes. The proposal for a free student access is an excellent one and increased frequency as well. But this has to be done with a review of setting these routes so that they link better east west and north south with links between. But they have to have efficient timing of transfers, express routes at rush hours along these various routes, feeder routes using perhaps smaller buses, more shelters, faster, better snow clearing. I think late night on call buses may work in certain routes, as opposed to having an empty bus going back and forth. Auditory cues I mentioned, and digital bus signage that show arrival times would be important. Two other key concerns the lack of support and subsidy of routes by neighboring communities. As we mentioned earlier, this is where many transportation systems achieve success as the express routes that are efficient, and closer to being money making ventures. So a regional system makes a lot of sense. I was going to mention the UPass at MUN, but I won’t.
Mark House 46:19
I think public transit should be a main focus for improving our city. By increasing and improving service on our city streets it solves several other problems citizens want the city to address, such as protecting the environment, neighbourhood traffic and speed calming. Fewer cars means less danger to pedestrians and cyclists etc. I think electric public transit is coming and coming faster than we realize. And it’s here to stay. And we need to find ways and means to acquire these vehicles without putting too much pressure on a very delicate system of sharing limited financial resources. There’s very little money to go around right now. And the province faces an unprecedented deficit and the city faces a budget shortfall and is legally required to maintain a balanced budget. The current Council has to cut programs and/or services to find these funds hence the $500,000 taken from public transit as an example. I’m not saying that transit is the right place to find these funds. But the question is, where else can we look that causes the least amount of pain for everyone. And we can put more electric buses on the roads. But that can’t easily happen unless residents use this and support public transit. And that would cut down on the subsidy.
Ron Ellsworth 48:00
Thank you, Josh, we need to strengthen our relationship with our neighboring municipalities. We also need to have a relationship with the provincial government and by increasing ridership we increase efficiencies and by increasing efficiencies we increase ridership. This will work towards lowering the cost of taxpayers at the same time making improvements to the system. For example, within the city can we use Metrobus to transport the older students to and from school rather than have a duplication of bus services on the street? We certainly need to move forward with electric buses and vehicles in general. So let’s continue to build the infrastructure that will allow us to be ready. We also need to look at rapid transit. I’ve been championing rapid transit since 2009. This will move people quickly to the larger demand areas within the city- for example, the university, malls, hospitals, and downtown. By having rapid transit, you’ll have more people willing to use the system because it’s more effective and more efficient. With regard to cutting the $500,000 first we need to look at the budget versus actual spending. Just because we reduced the budget doesn’t mean we’re reducing services. For those out there who keep saying the only way to save money is to reduce services they don’t really understand finance and budgeting. What we need to do is we need to roll up our sleeves. We need to get at the table and we need to find efficiencies. The better service that we provide, the more people are going to ride the buses. But it’s not a one time event. It’s not a one time exercise. This needs to be a continuous exercise that we are a changing evolving community and we must stay current on best practices. When we did the budget 2016 2017 we laid out a process to go through this and maintain and keep watching how the money is spent and the service you provide. I don’t think this council has really focused as much as it should on that process.
Jess Puddister 50:26
No doubt budget choices are tough. But it was the wrong choice to cut $ 500,000 from Metrobus’ budget last December. This is a core service. It’s an integral part of transportation equity in St. John’s, it’s simply not possible for low income households to own a car. And it is a collective responsibility we all share to make sure that people can move freely and safely around the city. I spoke to a man on Pleasant Street two days ago, and he told me that employers generally have to accept that if an employee doesn’t own a car, they’re probably going to be late for their shift once a week or more during the winter especially. And this really hurts people’s credibility and their ability to elevate themselves out of poverty. We really have to do better. One of the biggest issues we face in trying to address this is car culture. We invest so much money in the infrastructure required to support private vehicle ownership and movement through sprawl development. And it’s not just about the upfront cost of installation, but operation, maintenance and renewal for our streets too. Taxpayers often don’t realize but they’re subsidizing car culture through planning and budget choices at the Council table. We need to make a culture shift. One thing we can do is make it free for high school students to take the bus. The City of Kingston does this and when they did it increased ridership from 30,000 up to 600,000. I’d love to get back to the bargaining table with MUNSU to reassess how we could make a UPass possible for MUN students, faculty and staff. And we’re willing to change the narrative that this would be on the backs of students. It makes so much sense for people traveling to and from a similar space to use transit. Like so many people in the city are employed or go to school on the parkway. And the same could be said for provincial government and city staff. Streamlining usage for large groups of people like this would really up our game in transit in St. John’s and the investment that we would have access to to grow transit in the city.
Budget priorities [topics]
Town Hall 1
Between Snowmageddon, COVID-19 costs and federally required water treatment improvements. St. John’s will be looking at a budget crunch during your term. Many, however, are calling for service improvements and the city cannot legally run a deficit. What values will guide how you balance taxation and spending? What existing services would you be willing to reduce or eliminate to support your priorities?
Steve Parsons 59:35
Okay, we can’t keep running deficits. That’s a given. Taxes can’t go up people are taxed to death as it is. So those things are givens. We’ve got to look at restructuring the corporation so that it’s a much more efficient and lean operating entity. The way to it I’ve outlined on my platform. The divisions are far to compartmentalized. They have to come together and start working together so that real efficiencies can be realized and gains can be made from those efficiencies. They can be transferred to departmental levels. departments can be streamlined as a result, and you’ll get further gains. All this will help reduce the current deficit we have greatly. And you know, there’s no doubt about it we’re going to be dependent on provincial and federal funding going forward. There’s just no way around it. The Council has to be willing to lobby the provincial government and demand the provincial government lobbies the federal government to allow our community and our situation to develop in a real and fair way. The federal government wastewater regulations that they tried to impose down here was absolutely ridiculous. Their heavy handedness on the communities across the island should never have happened. But the politicians were ineffective, and basically gutless in dealing with it. We have to get the guts to deal with with these issues.
Debbie Hanlon 1:01:45
These are hard for two minute questions let me tell you. The last thing that I want to see is any increase in taxes, especially with what we’ve all been through, or any reduction in services. We need to look closely at the current budget to see where we can save, it’s, you know, COVID, and Snowmageddon – even the last hurricane we had, they impact our budget significantly. A smaller scale comparison was if you lived in your home and your roof came off, and you have only worked a certain job, you have to find the money for within your own budget to fix your roof. And that’s pretty much what the city’s gonna have to do. We can’t add more tax burdens on people. I know I’ve seen some words out there where people say, oh, just only a couple of dollars here or a couple of dollars there. And if you’re living on a fixed income, and you’re seeing you’re living in your home, then you got to decide, oh, I’m going to pay my taxes, or I’m going to eat, you know, we really got to look at that. Taxes need to be equalized, we need to not increase taxes. And I think the way to do it is by regionalization. By reaching out to some of the services we can come together as a group. The city has started this Regional Economic Committee, which is really good to see because we’re so close to the other municipalities, we could put a pool in the Goulds or we could put a pool in paradise and St. John’s and Paradise could share it. There are effects that we could do to help keep costs down. And if we come together as regionalized – the holistic approach that we come together to the federal government, we’ll have more power. It wasn’t about guts, it was about being turned down. But quite frankly, no. And we did lobby and we will continue to lobby it, we are looking at a $13 million deficit in 2022. And that’s significant. That has to come from somewhere because we have to have a balanced budget. So where does that come from? We have to be creative thinkers. And even though in 2016, we went through that budget line by line by line and every department gave some – everyone had to give some including Metrobus including everything. But now we have to look at how can we look further dig deeper into that budget, because I’m sure there is money that we can save. And there are very creative ways. Again, two minutes is not long enough to get into this. But if anyone would like to call me I would love to go through how I plan on doing that, but not any tax raises on my watch.
Greg Smith 1:04:28
I agree. regionalization is a very key and pivotal way for St. John’s to move forward. To note one thing, if you live in Brookfield Plains, to get services from St. John’s, you have to go through Mount Pearl to get there. So that’s certainly one thing that regionalization can really discuss about and really find efficiencies there. To start, I suggest that we sell Mile One, we eradicate the subsidy at St. John’s sport and entertainment. And I realize that is not the answer to all of St Johns’ fiscal challenges, but it’s certainly a start, I would like to see a committee to reform our business realty tax allowance and explore reductions, that these are my kind of ideas on them to go from 50% to 25%, available only for one consecutive year, with an opportunity to extend an additional year if modifications, renovations or green energy is able to be done to the property or undertaken. The current structure loses millions in tax revenue each and every year. And it doesn’t foster environment for new business and entrepreneurship in St. John’s, I think we can do better with permitting and eliminating the time tax on businesses. So we won’t lose business that is going to go to other cities in the metropolitan or even Halifax or Monckton. I think that that’s quite key. AThey’re kind of fed up with the long waits and the red tape that they have to kind of enjoy. We have the opportunity, in my opinion, to reform and to also respect our tax payers’ dollars. I don’t support raising taxes, because I have the ideas to create new revenue. And I think that we should do just that. All it needs is the political will to make it happen. And people around the table to respect the people of this city that know that their dollars are put to good work and not spent on things that they cannot afford. Thank you very much. And I appreciate Happy City for having us this evening in this forum. Thank you.
Anne Malone 1:06:49
Thank you. The values that inform any consideration of any issue for me, are human rights values. One of the things that has emerged from the pandemic – Well, Snowmageddon and the pandemic – are some of the very fragile pieces of our social safety net. We’ve discovered that there’s a lot of food insecurity in St. John’s, we discovered that a lot of people are inadequately or inappropriately housed in St. John’s, we’ve discovered that things like social isolation have pretty considerable mental health outcomes for folks. And I would like to call your attention that people with mobility restrictions in St. John’s spend literally half their lives in social isolation. Let’s just consider that for one second. So I think that for me, every budgetary decision would be by would be guided by the knowledge or by the the absolute decisive position I have that the burden and the hardship not be borne by the people who are at the lowest end of the socio economic pyramid. I don’t think we can afford to, I think we’re in a time when we really have to consider what we need versus what we want. Two things I can think of – Dave Lane a couple of years ago informed us that $18 million in outstanding property tax was uncollected. So that’s one one place where we can harvest finance. The second is we really have to consider whether or not we can support an arena that cannot sustain itself in this context.
Meghan Hollett 1:09:17
So I will start this by saying I’ve participated in lock-ins for the City of St. John’s budget as the Chair of Happy City St. John’s. And I think it’s unfortunate that media as well as community organizations haven’t had the opportunity to do that and be participants in those lock ins in the most recent budget. It’s an incredible opportunity and it provides a lot of great insight into budgeting process and the priorities. And I think we need more engagement as well as accountability and transparency on this front and that is something that I am committed to. In terms of values, for me what guides me, I will consider how we can make our city better for marginalized folks. I want to be informed by people with lived experience, like the disability community, racialized communities and St. John’s migrant and refugee and immigrant communities. I want to make decisions using an equity lens. And that’s considering climate justice, racial justice and economic justice. And just like my good friend Justin Lee had mentioned recently in a CBC piece, budgets are reflection of our values. And so I commit to providing background always for why I come to the conclusions that I come to. And I think that the Engage St. John’s portal is a great tool. But not everybody’s using that. So we need to find other ways to engage with people and become informed. And rather than, rather than how, rather than looking at what I would eliminate or cut, I’d like to consider for a second, where we can find alternative revenue. Because our city services are absolutely essential. And so many of them require investment and improvement and not cuts at all. I think that we can look at vacancy allowances, subsidies and taxation, it is not a bad word.
Tom Davis 1:11:35
So the values – needs versus wants, as Anne said – I take the perspective that we cannot increase taxes. One of the one of the challenges with property taxes, it affects everybody A rich person if he or she lives in a small house, pays the same amount as a very, very poor person. People who rent actually will feel the pinch from increased property taxes. A good friend of mine just lost his business – Axtion. When he first opened his property taxes were $100,000 a year. And now he’s left the city with $127,000 in unpaid city taxes. So these are real, and it affects people and unfortunately… You know, I actually went back to school and finished my economics degree this year. And I’m now doing some more courses. I’m participating in the big conference tomorrow about Newfoundland – where we are and where we’re going. And, as I sit around the table with with experts, and as I contemplate it, I don’t see any world where we have to do less with less, there’s no more do more with less, it’s less with less. So a reality based measure, but needs are very subjective, because you need to look out for everybody. And in particular, the people at the lowest scale, it’s so important. If people are not well, if they’re not healthy, they can’t work, they can’t be productive, they can’t contribute to society. So what I’d like to see is a review. We have some challenges – for whatever reason the city pays our employees an awful lot of money. Our city manager makes $50,000 more than the clerk of the Council, which is the highest provincial government employee. Our city solicitor makes $17,000 more than the Deputy Minister of Justice. We have got to deal with these things. And we have to be courageous, but we need to do it in a collaborative way.
Town Hall 2
Ron Ellsworth 53:17
Once again, reducing costs does not mean reducing services. A prime example of this is when I was on council, when we brought down the budget in 2016 and 2017, we removed approximately $19 million out of the budget cycle without any major impacts on services. Through a strong working relationship with Council, management staff, and our unions plus our community, we can all continue to work as a group to find efficiencies, improve best practices, and continue to find more efficient ways of doing and providing services once again, but rolling your sleeves out, getting at the table and going through the budget item by item and finding efficiencies alongside of our staff.
Mark House 54:48
Thanks, Josh. I’ve been hearing many concerns from residents and community groups and the causes they stand for. An example of this is St. John’s regional Fire Department. I had a meeting with a few of them earlier this week. And while I was there, one of their staff was being treated by their medics for a possible heart attack, they had to wait 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. And when they did arrive, it came from an ambulance company in Hollywood. So resources have been stretched, and they’re in real dire need of coming together. The meeting was cut short, because one of the guys ran out because of a fire alarm. And the other one that I was meeting with had to fill in for the guy who was having a heart attack, because they were short staffed. So this is obviously not a good situation due to budget constraints. I also recognize that each of these types of concerns is absolutely valid. Everyone that has expressed concerns to me I 100% agree with what these groups feel needs to be accomplished for their cause, or the concern, but we also have to realize that to address each and every concern to the satisfaction of all the residents is a fiscally challenging and near impossible thing to do. For example, if a significant portion of the budget is spent in snow clearing, we would have less money in other areas. And as long as the John’s exists, snow clearing is always going to be a complicated issue. Unless we can stop the snow from falling. It is a reality we deal with every winter and that will not change. And people don’t like the situation. And I am one of those people, but we love our city because we choose to live here. And we have to be able to put up with the pain of sometimes not having our streets clear the way we want it to be. And we all want what is best for our families, our friends and ourselves. No one wants to hurt the other because that goes against the idea of building a better city. We can do better, we can do better.
Jess Puddister 57:11
I think it’s important to point out that the information we currently have access to about the budget as residents isn’t very detailed. It’s also important to remember that 1) the 2016 efficiency review is quite serious and deep, and 2) the city doesn’t have an asset management plan. One of the questions I have that I don’t have enough data on is whether a cost of service study has been done on everything the city does, and what services are being subsidized versus what could have larger user fees to cover the actual cost of service. I believe that this was done a few years ago with respect to fixing residential water and sewer connections. But what about water metering? This is something that’s really common across Canada and we know that Newfoundlanders and labradorians are some of the highest consumers of water in the country. It costs a lot of money to treat and deliver potable water through the distribution system. And long term, I don’t think it makes sense to have a flat fee for this, we should incentivize water conservation, which would actually save us a lot of money. I would also be awesome to do an audit to understand how municipally owned spaces are being used right now, and how we could better use them. Can we rent out underused spaces to local businesses, agencies or community groups. Also, let’s get serious about securing grants in lieu of taxes from the provincial government for their properties within municipal boundaries, the overwhelming majority of Canadian municipalities received this revenue stream. Bottom line, a city budget doesn’t work for the community if it doesn’t work for the most vulnerable. I feel that there are efficiencies that can be found within the working relationship between the city and the provincial government in terms of service delivery and potential revenue options. I’m committed to limiting city spending by incentivizing density over sprawl. It’s not realistic to say that an increase in taxation is out of the question, but it should be an absolute last resort. If we can be courageous and dedicated to long term master planning that promotes mixed use development we can provide high quality services without needing to resort to tax increase.
Sandy Hickman 59:33
This will require a careful consideration of all programs and services and all sources of revenue. But let’s face it, the vast majority of revenue comes from property taxes which can be called redundant I suppose you could say. As you know, the preamble to your question there are costs on the horizon the city will have no control over such as a secondary sewage treatment. This is going to add several million dollars a year to our annual operating and debt cost – this will necessitate an increase in water tax so we want to avoid other tax increases. Like most people, I do not want to see further tax increases, and I’m pledging not to support any tax increases. We must ensure young families, low income earners, and the rapidly growing pensioner sector can afford to live in St. John’s, as they have other growing financial stresses. We all know that. But let’s also be clear the best way to avoid tax increase is to have a growing tax base. For many years growth kept up with costs – the last several years not so much. So that caused the city to have to have a tougher look at its budget in 16. And now again, next year. My priority would be to hold the line on taxes while doing two things. Undertaking a full review of services staffing, to find those savings that are there for sure. And then prioritizing or reprioritizing, all programs and services, applying a fair chunk of the surplus the city is now carrying towards a deficit for next year. That’s my main role. My main suggestion. That’s my top priority. We have to leave some surplus for the future but we can lean heavily on taking more rather than less going into next year’s budget. But as I said, it’s important to support the expansion of the tax base. You must facilitate this in many ways reasonable tax rates, and of course, cutting down red tape, making it easy to apply for permits, get through processes and get projects underway. And for new businesses, ease of processing advice, and other forms of assistance. It’s really important that the city be seen as helpful, not a hindrance. Economic development is the bottom line here. Whether it’s big business, small business, increasing housing – this is to help our population and of course to help the tax base grow.
Maggie Burton 1:02:13
I do believe that with some wisdom and some good fortune, that we should be able to improve service levels without increasing your tax bill. So there’s a hot take of the evening. Some of that, of course, is through the magic word from this debate, which has been efficiencies, efficiencies, efficiencies. Our continuous improvement process is actually working. Our staff haven’t been getting wage increases. And of course, with continuous improvement, we’ve had quarterly updates on our strategic plan, for example, that identifies how the asset management plan is coming along, which is a very complex and robust process that looks at every aspect of the city’s assets. And I want to give a shout out to deputy manager, Derek coffee, who’s really passionate about asset management planning. So that’s just one little thing. When I talk about not increasing your tax bill, I mean that the average tax bill should not increase in dollars and cents. A lot of counselors talk about mill rate, which is one variable that goes into your tax bill. And that’s how St. John’s taxes got so high. Between 2001 and 2016 people’s tax bills just about doubled if you measure them in inflation adjusted dollars, but the mill rate itself fell about 40%. So council acted as if taxes were falling and spread that message accordingly. So I think tax is a dollar and cents issue and not a mill rate issue. Looking at that way the budget crunch is not as dire as it seems. And property assessments – even though they’ve fallen we can change the mill rate to avoid service cuts while not increasing the actual amount that residents pay in taxes in that dollar and cents figure. After decades of promoting urban sprawl and increasing our cost to service the city, I think that we’ve turned the corner on that. And I really hope that we start using our capital budget to improve our existing city footprint instead of having to spend more money on all the developments and sprawl that had been approved, especially between 2001 and 2016.