Note: This article was originally published in The Overcast.
Last year’s City budget sucked, and people were really pissed. But the good news is Council learned its lesson and we’ve made substantial changes for 2017 and beyond.
It seems like the top meme in the waning days of this past year has been some variation of “F*$% 2016.” I think that really hits home for a lot of NLers because it has felt like the politicians of this place just can’t seem to get a handle on how to deal with a scary-looking economy.
Personally, it was pretty depressing to have been a part of that group last year when the council I sit on not only announced surprise tax increases for everyone, but also cut a few services that people value.
And that was before the Province raised every fee and tax it could get its hands on. The winter of 2016 was certainly one of discontent.
Now, I did vote against that budget, and Council did find ways to quickly reverse most of the annoying decisions like the one to cut our arts grants (they’re back for good now) and no longer cover the cost of sewer lateral repair (that one was scary – glad we fixed it).
But votes and apologies are pretty easy things to do. What we needed at City Hall was a serious time out for reflection and a plan of action to reverse the negative impact we had on our residents.
So here’s something that might come as a shock to everyone who has been beaten into cynicism this year: St. John’s City Council and staff actually listened to the public and found ways to make significant, responsible cuts to our spending and passed those savings back to taxpayers.
This is no small announcement. We didn’t just cut taxes almost back to where they were before last year’s budget (which is awesome in its own right). We’ve also fundamentally changed the way City Hall operates.
At Council’s direction, our dedicated staff spent the entire year working on an intensive, well-planned “program review” that analyzed dozens of programs in all departments, removed inefficiencies and redundancies, and made multiple changes in the way we do things to ensure these savings stick.
The program review was such a success that we’ve created a permanent staff position dedicated to continuous operational improvement. This position will be filled by the person who led the program review and she will constantly analyze how we do things and recommend, directly to the City Manager and Council, ways to provide better service and reduce costs.
Another big change that you may have noticed is the amount of engagement the City is doing with the public. From continuous information flow via media of all kinds, to public information sessions, meetings, and surveys, to our always-on 311 service available by phone, email, and app, never before has a Council been more connected or a budget more responsive to the people it serves.
In other words, this budget isn’t important just because we reduced your taxes. It’s important because it reflects a major change in how your City Hall works on your behalf.
There’s still so much left to do, and there will be plenty of ups-and-downs and the occasional unpopular decision. But as someone who has the honour and privilege to work in government on your behalf, I can say today that I’m more confident than ever in our path forward.
So, chin up, St. John’s! It’s not all doom and gloom, and lots of people are working to make things better. Let’s stay positive, focus on opportunities, and keep working together to make next year’s meme a little less F-bomby.