Holyrood budget sparks complaints, comedy, maybe a committee
By Craig Westcott/January 20, 2023
Holyrood councillors are feeling the heat for having raised some taxes and levies in the 2023 budget.
At last week’s public council meeting, the Town’s communications committee chairperson, councillor Laura Crawley, acknowledged the attention.
“There’s been a lot of it and of course it’s being dragged through facebook and all the other forms of social media,” said Crawley. “People are reaching out to our personal e-mails, personal messaging systems and things like that. When it comes to official Town business, I’m sure we’d all prefer that people would reach out using our (Town of) Holyrood accounts. That way it can be documented, and we can deal with it professionally. I’m not going to get into an argument or a shouting match on Facebook. I’m just not going to do it; I’m not going to respond. But I will respond to a few things I’ve seen here (publicly), so that it’s official.”
Crawley said it’s not the case, as some have charged, that because of the tax increases, the Town now has loads of money and don’t know what to do with it. Rather council had to raise taxes because the cost of everything the Town consumes and has to buy to provide services have gone up, she said.
Councillor Michelle Woodford complimented Crawley on explaining it well.
“I agree 110 per cent. Reading some of the chatter that’s on social media sites beyond our own, there’s a lot of chatter there about the budget and we knew that that was going to happen,” Woodford said. “However, from some of the comments that have been made, it’s obvious that some of these individuals did not go on our site or didn’t read our document in full to understand the reasons behind the increase that we were basically forced into in order to keep the Town running as status quo for 2023.”
Woodford said if people want to find out information, they should contact the councillors directly or look on the Town’s website.
Mayor Gary Goobie pointed out the recent tax increases were the first in 10 years.
“I know it’s a very, very poor time to have to consider any increases whatsoever,” the mayor allowed. “But as councillor Crawley said earlier, our expenditures in running the Town, I don’t know the exact per cent, but I’m suggesting they probably went up about 25 per cent. Because everything that we buy for the Town now, whether it’s fuel for our vehicles, parts for our equipment, lights, heat and the list goes on and on and on, has risen exponentially… And in order for us to continue the level and calibre of services and programs that our residents expect, it was totally unavoidable. We went through a very exhaustive process in the budget to try and cut and shave where we possibly could. Unfortunately, we came up short where our expenditures outweighed our revenue. And we were left with no other recourse but to adjust the mill rate by 0.5 of a mill.”
Since the last council meeting, the mayor has been hearing from a number of citizens, including Bill Penney, who came out with guns blazing on e-mail and social media against the tax increases, demanding to know the qualifications of Town staff, and engaging in an at times comical back and forth with Goobie. Penney lives in St. John’s, but has property in Holyrood.
Last Friday, Penney wrote Goobie and council suggesting the Town use any surplus monies from the tax increases to erect four bronze statues, two each for the mayor and chief administrative officer.
Penney suggested they be “iconic in stature, in great detail, spare no expenses, do not go to tender, just spend lots of our taxpayers money on them (there should be ample this year) for two of our outstanding town persons… I recommend that one of each person be put in the Downtown Holyrood, in the middle of the Roundabout, so that we taxpayers can pay homage to it daily with flowers and other acceptable paraphernalia. The other one of each person be erected on George Cove Mountain, looking down over us, protecting us.”
To that the mayor asked Penney to send him his phone number so that he could give him a call.
Goobie didn’t get a number, but Penney did extend an invitation.
“As a gesture to celebrate being Friday the 13th and the weekend, I invite you to come to St. John’s tonight,” wrote Penney. “We can hook up and go to a Micro Brewery. You choose, they all have great beers, I will buy you the first one! I expect you then to return the compliment. Now I won’t be able to continue to go one for one. I can’t afford that, taxation got me tapped out … But if you feel festive, perhaps you can buy a few rounds. I would come in to Holyrood to have a few with you if there was a Micro Brewery there, but unfortunately that got squashed.”
That last sentence was an apparent dig at the last controversy that generated this much attention in Holyrood, a decision by the Town to sell part of the Festival Grounds to a private businessperson who had plans to build and operate a micro brewery there. In the middle of the uproar, Mayor Goobie resigned his position arguing he didn’t agree with the decision or the way it was communicated. Then councillors Roger Myette and Kevin Costello also voted against the micro brewery deal. Council eventually reversed the decision.
As for Penney’s invitation, Goobie responded: “Bill, I will add this email along with your comments on Community Voice to forward to our lawyer. Everything is being documented.
Have a good weekend!”
Penney then chided the mayor for not being able to take his “banter.”
“I think I hit a weak spot in your armour,” Penney wrote. “Legal threats don’t bother me… Perhaps I will retaliate with exploring a Class Action Lawsuit by the citizens of Holyrood… So, what about that beer? Are you wanting to meet me at a Micro Brewery?”
A more serious critic of the budget is former deputy mayor Mark Lane, who was also embroiled in the micro brewery dispute in 2021.
“I reached out to a few councillors who speak to me – because there are a few up there who don’t – and said they should really give this some consideration,” Lane told The Shoreline on Wednesday. “Because we live in a post pandemic world where everything is more expensive, inflation is the highest we’ve seen in 30 or 40 years, the inflation for food is still going up… We all feel the crunch in the pocketbooks. And we all as residents and people of the province are watching our own pennies, cutting expenses at home… We are all tightening our belts and then we’ve got the Town (taking) what money I can save by tightening my own belt, (and) without tightening its own, putting its hands further in my pocket and other people’s, especially vulnerable people like seniors on a fixed income, or lower income individuals, or even younger people trying to get ahead.”
Lane said the Town is also borrowing too much year over year with little to show for it.
“They’re boasting a $4.4 million budget, but what a lot of people don’t understand is that they’re also borrowing another $1.3 million, so the actual budget is $6.7 million,” Lane said.
The cost of servicing the Town’s debt this year is some $693,316.
“They’re debt serving ratio is 16 per cent in Holyrood and when you look at Paradise it’s three (actually 3.5 per cent). For other municipalities of equal size or similar size it’s around nine. And here’s Holyrood at 16 per cent. So, 16 per cent of the entire budget this year, is going towards servicing debt, and they’re looking to borrow more at an interest rate of between six and seven per cent. For what purpose? If you look at what we’ve got here in Holyrood, we’ve got an unreliable water system at best… we’re still flushing raw sewerage into the harbour, and in a municipality where 30 kms of the roads are maintained by the Province, we have very few roads to maintain in Holyrood and they’re not that great either.”
In fact, much of the money being borrowed this year is earmarked for a new water system, with a much smaller amount targeted towards upgrades to the sewerage station near the boardwalk.
“There’s no real transparency, from my perspective, and many people feel the same way,” Lane said. “I really, really feel that it was unnecessary to raise taxes at a time when people are hurting financially. It’s ridiculous.”
Lane said he has been contacted by a number of people who have asked them to speak up for residents, but he is busy with his own family and work life. However, he is considering appointing a committee or starting a petition to lobby council to reconsider the tax increases.
Lane said some people are afraid of speaking out publicly for fear of drawing a legal response from the Town, such as he received during the micro brewery controversy.
“I’m not trying to stir the pot here, I just want answers,” Lane said. “In my opinion, this is not a revenue problem, it’s a spending problem and the Town of Holyrood needs to be held more accountable on how my tax dollars are invested, because I don’t see the results in water, sewer and roads.”