The City of St. John’s released the details of Budget 2018  yesterday afternoon. It is the third year of a 3-year budget plan. Council’s main messaging on the Budget is that taxation rates will remain unchanged for 2018, with no new fees or charges to fret over in the forthcoming year. 

Councillor Dave Lane is lead councillor for the City’s Finance and Administration portfolio. He says revenues and expenditures are balanced for 2018, with a marginal 0.1% increase over 2017.

“We look forward now to operating with fiscal restraint and efficiency, ensuring that we end the year in a balanced and positive position as we plan for the next three-year budget cycle.”

Lane says that, “Since assuming office in October, this Council has been working hard to dig into the matters that our residents want us to address – from efficient city operations to service improvements to programs that make St. John’s a city where people want to live and work.”

In his official budget presentation to council, he describes the new councillors’ meetings and debates on the budget and all matters as “passionate, interesting and, most of all, collaborative,” and adds that he believes this new energy “bodes well for the coming year, as this council develops the next three-year budget and a new, corporate strategic plan for 2019-2021.”

He adds that multi-year budgeting has been very successful for the City, most notably in helping the City achieve long-term plans and make progressive strategic decisions. “Planning over a longer term allows the City to react to economic trends, ease the burdens of expensive projects, and keep strategic priorities top of mind.”

Lane also states that council “took the public response to the 2016 to 2018 budget seriously, and determined it was time to take an in-depth look across all operations at City Hall.” In doing so, “City staff undertook a year-long Program Review which netted significant annual savings for the City totaling over $13 million.”

He says that “because staff implemented cost-saving measures as they were identified — rather than waiting until the budget announcement — a budget surplus was realized for 2016. This surplus will partially be used to pay down the City’s pension debt saving taxpayers approximately $477,000 in interest over the next three years. The City is returning this money to taxpayers by easing expenditure pressures in the operating budget.”

Lane also stated that “with so many ongoing efforts to engage and improve services, starting in 2018 we intend to conduct the City’s first comprehensive citizen satisfaction survey. The intent of the survey is to: identify priority
issues, programs and services; gauge citizen awareness, perception of, and satisfaction with City programs and services; and to identify gaps or opportunities in services.”

He says data collected from the survey “will help identify areas for the City’s continuous improvement efforts, and will also help them identify and confirm strategic priorities for a new strategic plan and budget for 2019-2021.”

In his budget presentation to council, Lane also acknowledged, “We are challenged as a Council to ensure that we always operate in the most effective and efficient way possible. I believe another challenge we face as a Council, which is equally important, is to be accountable for our decisions.”

He believes that the ongoing trial of the Committee of the Whole structure helps in that effort, and he was “pleased to note that the City is currently investigating ways to make those and other Council forums
more accessible to the public via webcasting, social media and other opportunities.”

As well, a panel of experts has been struck to review and advise the City on the best governance process for its Internal Audit function. This includes reviewing the idea of a Municipal Auditor General. Evaluating the costs and benefits of a Municipal Auditor General comes in response to public interest in council doing so.

“Considering the establishment of a Municipal Auditor General is an important step towards complete
openness and transparency for municipal operations,” says Mayor Danny Breen. “We want to assure the
public they can have confidence in the spending of their tax dollars. If an independent panel feels this
approach is best for the City, then we will certainly consider that option.”

Based on public sentiment during the election campaign this year, it is not common knowledge that the city already has an audit department. “Our internal audit department has existed for a number of years and is comprised of two staff members – the City Internal Auditor, and a Senior Internal Auditor,” explained Councillor Dave Lane.

Lane wasn’t all cherries and roses in his statement, as he ended his presentation by acknowledging some cold hard truths council can’t ignore.

“I cannot understate the challenge that lies ahead for this council. The external environment is highly uncertain: the oil and gas sector is enduring major disruption; our city’s population is continuing to grow while also continuing to age; and the provincial and federal governments are making policy and tax changes that will impact our municipality.”

He went on to say that “perhaps most significant are decreasing property values, which are the basis we use to determine tax rates. The impact of changing values on the next budget cycle will likely require this Council to make difficult choices to maintain our objective of a low-cost, effective government.”