SAINT JOHN – As a new Municipal Plan era is ushered in, it creates a soft landing for what has been a tumultuous year in the Port City. The result of a two-year intensive community consultation termed “PlanSJ,” the Plan provides a new direction for future development and investment to counteract the sprawl that has typified growth in Saint John for decades.
The new Municipal Plan couldn’t come at a better time considering the city’s perilous financial situation. With a population of 70,000 people, the City maintains more than 700 kilometres of municipal streets stretched over 316 square kilometres. While some of the financial problems can be attributed to a moribund tax base due to extreme suburban flight, Council has also opted to focus on problematic legacy projects. A new police station, Peel Plaza, is being built on prime uptown land at a price of $50 million (with the argument that it will trigger additional private development around the area.) The $85 million waterfront redevelopment project is in jeopardy because the Hardman Group pulled out due to excessive government ‘delays’ in securing the property. And while the multi-million dollar investment in the new transit HQ was arguably warranted, the city’s commitment to that service seems non-existent.
Council has prioritized these lost opportunities with expensive price tags ahead of basic commitments [PDF]; ranging from providing safe drinking water, improving social housing, to revitalizing five priority neighbourhoods. These opportunity costs are real and residents are feeling the pinch as public services have been cut…namely Transit, Animal Control, Fire Services, while user fees have doubled or quadrupled in some areas.
I would be remiss to not mention the city’s current pension deficit, which is a reality for most pension plans today. Pension plans are extremely complex and each plan has its own set of rules and regulations but must always be looked at long-term (the Plan was in a surplus of $24 million as recently as 2000-2003.) Deficits in place at this particular moment in time are not the harbinger of doom and gloom and nor should they be used as an excuse to slash deferred wages and cut services as if these choices are part of a zero-sum game. They are not. If communities like Saint John had participatory budgeting instead of in-camera meetings, what choices would have been made? What do residents want for their city? Would you rather the library stay open past 5pm? How about holiday transit service? Curb-side recycling? The list goes on.
PlanSJ, by contrast, is to be applauded for its strict commitment to community engagement during every step of the process. “The plan has given us, as a city, the opportunity to get on the same page with regards to what we want this city to be…all oars rowing in the same direction,” says Anne McShane, Chair of the PlanSJ Citizen Advisory Committee. She stresses that the Plan has resident fingerprints all over it, and most importantly “it was built by people who live here and love this city.”
While the impact of the new Municipal Plan remains to be seen, the resounding message from city residents has been clear: proceed with sustainable, compact growth with smart investments in transit, leisure programs and social housing. This current Council has failed to make its case but on May 14th those same engaged residents will be at the ballot box.