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CBS spending cuts ‘can only go on for so long,’ warns Hillier

By Craig Westcott/December 16, 2021

While all members of CBS council who were present at last week’s public meeting were quick to sing the praises of the Town’s 2022 budget, councilor-at-large Rex Hillier also served a warning – that keeping the lid on spending might be near impossible after next year.

Council members were happy to point out that with the exception of the water and sewer tax, they were able to keep all other taxes and fees, including the residential and commercial mil rates, unchanged. The water and sewer tax is going up by $25 per household. They also praised the $37.2 million budget’s focus on safety, including more money for sidewalks and traffic calming, and a reduction in speed limits in school zones.

When it came his turn to comment, Hillier also highlighted council’s commitment to neighbourhood safety, but stressed the importance of business and residential growth, noting it was nice to see such activity bouncing back. He reiterated a theme Mayor Darrin Bent has been pushing since the September municipal election, that it’s important for CBS to focus on economic development, including at the port of Long Pond and the Gateway in Kelligrews, so that the Town is not so dependent on residential taxes to pay for services.

“The only fee that we increased was our water and sewer fee,” Hillier said, adding that since 2016, the Town has absorbed over $300,000 in increases in water charges from the City of St. John’s without passing those extra costs on to taxpayers.

“When that’s taken out of general revenue, everyone in town pays, even those who don’t have water,” said Hillier. “So, in this case it makes sense that those in the town who do have water are paying the bill. There are a lot of good things here (in this budget). One caution, it’s great to be able to say that we’ve reduced spending five years in a row. That’s a great soundbite. People don’t want to be paying taxes. It looks great on the election literature. And it’s a testament to the hard work of our staff to be able to put that together. But that can only go on for so long. And I think we need to be ready for the time when we can no longer get by in this town by spending less, year after year after year.”

Mayor Bent wrapped up the budget conversation by observing that the work that went into this latest one was both exhaustive and exhausting.

“It’s mainly because it came on the heels of a municipal election,” he explained. “We were faced with financial constraints that councilors probably (never faced before). I know that in the past six budgets that I had to deal with, this was the most constrained, partly due to Covid-19, and storm mitigation played a big role and left us with a shortfall that we had to deal with. But we did find ways to economize without affecting core services, without affecting safety, or our frontline workers. And we’ve done it while cutting spending again, however slightly. But like councilor Hillier pointed out, that’s something you have to do when you don’t have the revenue that you want. And one of the things we’re concentrating on in this budget is business attraction and hopefully, councilor Hillier and others, we’re going to have a little extra money, not on the backs of taxpayers, but from other resources next year, through housing starts and through the housing market which we’ve seen come a long ways in the past year in the second year of Covid, that we’ll have that extra money and maybe next year we will up our spending, but not on the backs of taxpayers and we will reinvest in programs and services for taxpayers that they want and quite frankly that they deserve.”

Bent said, despite the constraints, the Town is able to increase the focus on safety next year, provide water and sewer on five more roads, and complete the new library and community park. 

The mayor thanked Deputy Mayor Andrea Gosse for leading the budget preparation on council’s end, and finance director Elizabeth Davis and her staff for helping council get through it all.

“We knew it was going to be tough, and we made some decisions that were tough on some of the programs that we would have liked to continue on to,” Bent said. “But we’re just going to put them aside for this year and do these things. And these things are big jobs and they make a big difference for people in our community. So, it’s great to have this budget done, and I am hoping that this will be the toughest budget that this council will see though its term. So, thank you to everyone.”

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