Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Budget Process Growing Pains Expected

(excerpts from article published by the Daily Gleaner, December 28/10)


Opening the doors to the capital city's budget process showed the public the pain and the passion that goes into determining city services and taxation levels, says Mayor Brad Woodside.

For the first time in the city's history, budget planning meetings were open to the public and media throughout the fall as the city created its nearly $98-million 2011 general fund operating and capital budget.

Opening the doors to budget discussions is about trying to move the city towards greater transparency, said Woodside.

Eleven budget meetings were held. Three of those 11 were behind closed doors where possible personnel cuts were considered, but the rest were conducted publicly and they showed the divergent views of 13 elected officials, Woodside said.

"It's very difficult at times to come to a consensus or to agree on certain things. Everybody has a view or an opinion and it's quite a battle. It's a tough exercise to go through," he said.

"It showed the public the work and the passion that went into it."

Open budget sessions didn't attract members of the public with one exception. When the budget process started in September, one of finance committee chairman Mike O'Brien's constituents attended.

Beyond that, media members attended the sessions and listened as councillors reviewed spending, asked questions and looked for areas to cut costs.

At times, tempers flared and O'Brien had to warn councillors to keep it civil.

"I've always in the past said to councils, whether it's a budget meeting or a council meeting, that there's nothing wrong with a disagreement or objecting to what someone else is saying, but when the gavel comes down and you leave the room, you leave it here," the mayor said. "It tends to work quite well."

Councillors are passionate in their views and the fur does fly, he said.

"It's not a pleasant exercise to go through and when it's finished, it's quite a relief."

Woodside said like it or not, it will be the way the city conducts business.

"There's legislation coming into place that says meetings have to be open and that there's more transparency. We're trying to get ahead of it and we're going to open up the city for business. If somebody is not supporting something, then I think the public has a right to be a part of what that discussion is and see where their councillor stands on any given issue.''

The mayor said there will likely be discussion about how the budget preparation process worked and that might influence how 2011 unfolds, but the process will continue to be a public one.

While Woodside said he wanted councillors to leave their budget disagreements at the budget table and carry on with business, that didn't prevent the city's finance committee chairman from venting about disagreements.

O'Brien said he was frustrated by what he called a block of councillors voting against service cuts and rate reductions when he and others felt that there was still too much fat in the municipality's finances.

O'Brien has vowed to go back at it in 2012 and look for more places to create savings and cut the budget to bring in more tax cuts.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tension | Mike O'Brien says the 'coalition' not respecting mayor, budget process (as published int he Daily Gleaner, December 23/10)

Coun. Mike O'Brien says he might not be able to continue as chairman of the finance committee if councillors don't share his vision of the city's financial direction.

Click to Enlarge
GLEANER/STEPHEN MACGILLIVRAY PHO
O'BRIEN

O'Brien lashed out this week at councillors who refused to support a half-cent tax rate reduction as part of the $97.9-million operating and capital budget crafted for 2011.

Although O'Brien challenged councillors through the media to consider a tax rate reduction, the first time it came to the council table was at the Dec. 15 budget meeting.

Councillors Jordan Graham, David Kelly, Marilyn Kerton, Stephen Kelly, deputy mayor Dan Keenan and Mayor Brad Woodside voted for the tax cut.

Councillors Steven Hicks, Stephen Chase, Scott McConaghy, Tony Whalen and Eric Megarity voted against it.

The budget was officially approved Monday night with the reduction in place.

Despite the fact his tax rate reduction passed, O'Brien said he feels he's at odds with the group of councillors he has dubbed the "coalition.''

"The coalition, as I call it, for lack of a better word, seems to just be in lock-step with staff and that makes it very difficult to effect change," he said.

"I found there were times there wasn't a level of respect showed for the mayor and again, it seemed to be blindly following the recommendations by staff. We have a very good staff, but the councillors are elected to make the tough decisions and set the policy and financial direction for the city.''

O'Brien said people are proud of the city and many support the direction for capital expenditures.

"But at the same time, they fully expect us to try to pinch every penny we can. That's the vision that I have and if it's not shared by the majority, then I can't carry on as finance chair. It's just too frustrating," O'Brien said in an interview.

In a private e-mail circulated to all members of city council, the mayor called for a media gag order and urged councillors to wait until the new year when they could meet.

"All I can do is give my best advice ... They didn't pay attention. What I wanted to do is talk about this privately," Woodside said.

"I got involved in it last year and I was very frustrated and I'm staying out of it this year. I've already told them they're starting to look like a Saint John council. They don't get it, so they're just going to keep at it.

"What I have to say to them in a private memo is basically, 'Calm down and let's get together in the new year' after everybody has had a chance to take a breather and stay away from the media because we're looking bad," Woodside said.

"I'm a mayor. I'm not the president of a corporation. If I was, there would be consequences to what's going on, but that's not the way municipal politics works.''

While the public may think the mayor rules, Woodside said that's not the case.

"Most of the time, I'm doing exactly the same thing as a kindergarten teacher. I get very frustrated.''

O'Brien said his frustration goes back to last year when council worked on the 2010 budget. That budget saw a 0.85 cent hike in the city's tax rate.

"Last year, we tried to work hard to at least bring in some new funding for infrastructure deficit renewal, which I support 100 per cent. It's a visionary process, but there was a group of us who thought that we could do that last year, but still keep the tax rate flat," O'Brien said.

"But there was a group of more numbers that didn't agree with us. After last year, I've heard throughout the year, especially after the provincial election, to me it became crystal clear. I didn't have to have people call me every night at home, that they wanted more fiscal restraint. To me it was just obvious."

O'Brien said he went into the budget process for 2011 convinced that the city could handle the capital construction commitments on its books, keep debt-servicing manageable, but still look for savings to start to wrestle operating budgets down.

"There were four or five of us that shared that vision and, in my opinion, it was quite obvious that there was a majority that didn't," O'Brien said.

"Maybe the four or five that kind of shared the vision, maybe we weren't as effective politicians as the other ones because there's no planning or plotting, but the group that didn't seem to share our vision seemed to be more cohesive and co-ordinated in their efforts.

"Most of the things that staff were for or opposed to were agreed to by the majority of the group. I know it is a democracy and majority rules, but it's very, very frustrating when I sense and I inherently know that there's only one taxpayer.''

O'Brien said some people accused him of bringing in the tax rate reduction idea at the last minute.

"Perhaps I did and maybe it caught some people off-guard and they didn't have time to co-ordinate how they would deal with that. And that's kind of what happened. Thank goodness ... that there were two votes that I didn't anticipate.

"When that debate came at the last minute, there was a couple of councillors that agreed with us who typically hadn't. That was a bit of a gamble and it seemed to work, but maybe process-wise it wasn't the prettiest way to go about things."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sometimes, Conflict Can Be Good
(Editorial published by the Daily Gleaner, December 22/10)

Monday night's session of Fredericton city council brought some good news for the city in the form of a budget that acknowledges the fiscal challenges the municipality faces at the moment while also respecting the need to maintain services.

We applaud council for voting through a modest reduction in the tax rate. Sure, the savings it provides to homeowners is small, but it's a symbolic acknowledgement that the rate hasn't gone down in two decades despite the community's good fortune in recent years.

We're impressed that for the most part, municipal jobs have been maintained. Some positions have been cut, but it's been handled through restructuring, ensuring no pink slips had to be doled out.

Coun. Mike O'Brien, chairman of the city's finance and administration committee, said he was actually prepared to make deeper cuts, but there was some opposition on council to cutting too much.

"Deep in my heart, I know there's more savings that could be had that would not have any substantial impact on some of the services that we deliver to the residents," he said Monday.

"But it's to convince the rest of my colleagues to share that vision. We trimmed around the edges. We poked and prodded, but there's more to be had."

But we're pleased with the balance that's been achieved. It seems that this year's budgeting process turned out to be something of an adversarial process, with two main factions emerging in council.

On one side, there were fiscal conservatives such as Coun. O'Brien, looking to make deeper cuts. On the other, there were councillors such as Stephen Chase determined to keep the cuts to a minimum.

Coun. O'Brien laments the fact that not all councillors were on the same page in this budgeting process. We can understand why that might be frustrating. Butting heads with one's colleagues is always more difficult than arriving at a result unanimously.

But the adversarial process that's arisen in the council chamber this year, while possibly arduous for our elected municipal representatives, has achieved the proper result, and that's a budget that respects both the need for fiscal restraint and the city's responsibility to provide reliable levels of service.

It's almost as though a two-party system has unofficially found its way into city hall. For any government to be effective, there needs to be a strong voice in opposition. A government without any checks and balances is less likely to govern effectively.

Furthermore, for government at any level to function properly, it needs to do so openly, and in that respect, this council has achieved that goal. The openness of this budget process is to be applauded and is a policy that should be maintained going forward.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fredericton City Council Approves 2011 Budget

Fredericton City Council has voted to reduce the City’s tax rate by 0.5 cents for 2011: the first such decrease to the tax rate in more than two decades. The new inside tax rate will be $1.4211 per $100 of assessment and the outside tax rate will be $1.0658 per $100 of assessment.

The rate and other aspects of Fredericton’s 2011 budget were approved as part of a special Budget meeting held today at Fredericton City Hall. The City’s approved general fund budget for 2011 is $97,972,486, with the approved water and sewer utility budget totalling $11,171,107. The budgets include both operating and capital amounts.

“The City’s 2011 Budget has been designed with an eye to the future,” said Coun. Mike O’Brien, Chair of the City’s Finance & Administration Committee. “The world is experiencing unstable economic times and our residents expect Council to be part of the solution. We have to tackle our infrastructure deficit, ease the tax burden on our residents, and continue to grow Fredericton.”

A total of $14,571,125 worth of capital projects were approved by City Council for 2011. This included various infrastructure projects, both renewal and replacement, along with extensions to meet the needs of a growing city.

Key capital projects will include work related to Phase II of the St. Mary’s Street Reconstruction, Brookside Drive Reconstruction (Phase V), Clark Street and McLeod Hill Road Reconstruction, plus various intersection and neighbourhood safety improvements, sidewalk extensions, and signalization and intersection upgrades.

New lights will be installed at the Prospect Street Field, along with the decommissioning of lights at Queens Square, and a feasibility study for a new indoor pool. Funds for the final phase of an automated building permit and work order system, as well as a tourism e-strategy were approved.

Key changes included the elimination of 13 summer students and two administrative positions at the Fredericton Fire Department, Transit Route 18 & 20 service cuts to Silverwood, cuts to ISO Certification audit fees and the City’s green program, as well as a reduction or elimination of funds for the Fredericton Botanical Garden, the new Bobby Burns statue base, the Regent Street wharf installation, and Community School Playgrounds.

Council also approved the Water & Sewer Utility for 2011, which is self-funded by user rates. The total budget for 2011 is $11,171,107. Water and sewer rates will each increase from 66 cents to 71 cents per cubic meter (m³), for a combined rate of $1.42 per m³. This is the third year of a five-year increase to help address the utility’s $119 million infrastructure deficit.

Council approved a $1,807,772 water & sewer capital budget. Key capital projects in the Water & Sewer Utility for 2011 include Phase II of the Devon Trunk Sanitary Sewer & Water Main, Forest Hill Water & Sewer Renewal, the construction of the Northbrook Reservoir, in the Brookside Drive area, and the co-funded extension of water and sewer service along McLeod Hill Road.

Budget 2011 marked the City’s first fully open budget process, which started at the end of August and involved weeks of planning and nine budget meetings. For more on the City of Fredericton 2011 budget, visit www.fredericton.ca and look for the Budget 2011 feature.

Monday, December 20, 2010

2011 budget coming down tonight - Cuts? | City faces tough decisions
(excerpts from article published by the Dialy Gleaner, December 20/10)

Fredericton's 2011 general fund and capital budget will be on the desks of city councillors tonight in its final form. Councillors last week wrapped up a budget preparation process that was mostly done in public. That means the public hasn't had to wait until tonight's formal budget meeting to know what the 2011 tax rate is likely to be.

For the first time in two decades, council has decided to drop the rate by a half cent. The decision was hotly debated with five councillors suggesting the city should hold the bottom line to try to insulate itself against future funding cuts by the provincial government.

Forecasts for assessment growth from 2012 to 2015 are below the 4.88 per cent tax base increase the city saw over the past year. The tax base is the total value of all taxable property in the city. In 2015, the city suggests growth will drop off to 3.50 per cent.

The city's tax rate is $1.4261 per $100 of assessed property value. The rate went up 0.85 cents in 2010. The proposed 2011 tax rate reduction will shave between $7 and $8of the total tax bill on a $150,000 house. However, given that assessments went up 2.37 per cent for most homeowners, property owners are still going to be paying higher taxes in the spring of 2011.

Finance committee chairman Mike O'Brien said the budget will maintain most services and show the public that the city is running a tight ship.
"We'll be bringing down a budget that we can maintain the services that people expect and deserve and also show them that there's some fiscal restraint.
"We tried our best to keep costs as low as possible. There is a slight tax decrease. It's not a large amount, but it's the responsible thing to do," O'Brien said.

"We did have to raise some fees and some fares to generate revenue. That was unfortunate, but some of those hadn't been visited for years and we'll rectify that in future.'' The city is planning to schedule more frequent reviews of fees so that it doesn't have to implement large hikes in cases where fees haven't been adjusted for years.

To read the entire article, please click on the following link: http://dailygleaner.canadaeast.com/cityregion/article/1359260

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Council Adds Four More Properties to Local Historic Places Register

Photo of St. Anne’s Chapel of EaseFredericton (December 13, 2010) – St. Anne’s Chapel of Ease and St. Anne’s Anglican Church, adjoining places of worship at 245 Westmorland Street are the latest historically significant properties to be included in the City of Fredericton’s Historic Places Register.

City Council approved the two church buildings for inclusion in the Register today along with two distinctive homes in the St. Anne’s Point Heritage Preservation Area in Fredericton South, one at 162 Winslow Street and the other at 127 Lansdowne Street.

St. Anne’s Chapel of Ease is a small Anglican Gothic Revival stone, which opened in 1847. It was originally called St. Anne’s Parish Church. The name was changed to St. Anne’s Chapel of Ease when a new adjoining church was built in the 1960s. St. Anne’s

was planned by Fredericton’s first Anglican Bishop, John Medley to fulfill a need during construction of Christ Church Cathedral. St. Anne’s is the earliest North American structure completed by Frank Wills, a young British architect who immigrated to Fredericton to assist Bishop Medley.

Photo of St. Anne's Anglican ChurchSt. Anne’s has survived virtually unchanged in its more than 160 year history. It is universally regarded as “the finest small North American Parish Church of its date in the English Gothic Revival style. Based on thirteenth century parish churches St. Anne’s Chapel of Ease was designated a Canadian National Historic Site in 1992.

St. Anne’s Anglican Church is a modern stone and concrete-clad church opened in 1962. The original Church could no longer meet the demands of parishioners. Designed by Stanley Emmerson of Saint John and John Feeney of Fredericton, the church was built to a similar height, size and materials as the original church. St. Anne’s Parish Church is one of the few distinguished pairings in New Brunswick of modern and historic architecture. The structurally expressive, open and light-filled modern church accentuates the darker, more enclosed and ornate qualities of its Gothic Revival ancestor.

Photo of 161 Winslow StreetThe one-and-a-half-storey wood-frame house at 161 Winslow Street was built in 1934 for the University of New Brunswick Dean of Forestry J. Miles Gibson, who helped create the Maritime Forest Ranger School at the university.

One of the first houses constructed on Winslow Street, the house features a gambrel roof, a balanced front façade, large rectangular windows and a central front door surmounted by a transom flanked by sidelights. It has an open portico supported by slim columns, topped by triangular pediment.

Photo of 127 Lansdowne StreetBuilt in the early 1920s, the concrete-block, two-storey house at 127 Lansdowne Street was built on a portion of a significant Loyalist land grant, near the corner of Waterloo Row. Concrete block was an affordable building material, and houses constructed of this material often reflect a response to the local economic climate or a shortage in available building supplies. The home features a low-pitched hip roof, a central dormer and regularly spaced rectangular windows. Its open front porch is supported by cast columns and it has a triangular pediment surmounting porch entrance.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

CIty tax rate to decrease

(posted by KHJ Radio News, December 16/2010)


It turned out it wasn't a popular suggestion, but Fredericton city council has narrowly voted, in principle, to drop the city tax rate. After some contentious debate, council voted 6-5 in favour of dropping the rate by half a cent. Finance committee chair Mike O'Brien suggests the rate could have been reduced even more.

Some councillors felt the idea of a tax cut, originally suggested by O'Brien, was sprung on them out of nowhere. But O'Brien says it was never a secret he wanted a decrease in the rate. The reduction in the tax rate meant a budget shortfall of $288,000. In another testy debate, council decided to take that money from the land sales account to again balance the overall budget.

City votes for small tax cut
Heated debate Emotions run high at meeting
(as published by the Daily Gleaner, December 16, 2010)
http://dailygleaner.canadaeast.com/cityregion/article/1354437

Fredericton taxpayers will see the city's tax rate drop half a cent in 2011 under a proposed cut approved in principle Wednesday night by city council. In 2010, the tax rate rose 0.85 cents to bring the rate to $1.42 per $100 of assessment. That amounted to a $12.75 increase on a $150,000 house for the year. The proposed rate reduction for 2011 would cut between $7 and $8 on that same $150,000 house.

Tempers frayed during the debate, which ended in a six-five vote in favour of the tax reduction.
Councillors Steven Hicks, Stephen Chase, Scott McConaghy, Tony Whalen and Eric Megarity opposed the tax rate reduction. Councillors Jordan Graham, Marilyn Kerton, Stephen Kelly, Dan Keenan, David Kelly and Mayor Brad Woodside voted in favour of the rate cut.

Chase was annoyed that finance committee chairman Mike O'Brien sprang the discussion of a rate reduction at the 11th hour of budget deliberations. Councillors have been working since September to reduce spending in 2011 and the tax rate reduction would mean finding another $288,000 on top of $1 million that councillors have already come up with through a combination of fee hikes and internal efficiencies.

Although O'Brien did media interviews about reducing the tax rate, it's unclear if he raised the topic at the council table before Wednesday night. Chase brands the move political opportunism rather than sound fiscal management. "We worked really hard as a council to examine services and come up with $1 million in efficiencies. To put that notion on the table without council having an adequate opportunity to determine where it could find a further half cent, I think that was short-sighted on the part of council," Chase said.

"I could do the politically popular thing in supporting a tax rate reduction and I think that's all it is; it's aimed at that," Chase said. "To entertain the idea of a half-cent tax rate cut that has never been factored into any of the figures that we have here tonight, I just think that's very irresponsible to spring that on council tonight."

"You're damn right it's political," said Woodside during the heat of the debate. "In the last election, the biggest issue was taxes ... I have been very frustrated with this budget process. I've brought a lot of things forward and I haven't got a lot of support. "I feel there's a half-cent (rate reduction) in there." Even with the rate reduction, assessments have gone up, so property owners will likely still see their overall tax bill increase, the mayor said.

But O'Brien said the city hasn't done enough to cut deeply into the city budget. "We did have a lot of items presented, but my opinion is that we didn't dig deep enough ... I know inherently we could have done a better job," O'Brien said. "Not only that, the taxpayers have made it clear to me that they would appreciate that we would find it in ourselves to give some kind of tax relief."

Other councillors agreed. Graham suggested the city has too big of a financial security blanket. He made a number of attempts throughout the budget process to slash even more from program spending. Stephen Kelly said property owners are seeing property taxes as becoming more challenging year over year as assessments rise and he's heard from taxpayers that they want rate reductions.

"They're looking for some leadership on a tax burden plateau," Stephen Kelly said. "We were able to come up with $1 million in savings. I don't see one dime of that coming back to taxpayers."

Keenan said the city should do more to cut the tax bill and not enough work has been done to slash the budget. "There's a certain number of people around this table who won't vote for it (the rate reduction) because they consistently voted for salary increases that are unsustainable (like) the management increase that I would not have supported. They have consistently voted to increase spending," Keenan said.

He accused councillors opposed to the rate reduction of trying to orchestrate the budget to a zero per cent increase. "Who orchestrated that?" Chase said. "There were people sitting here writing down numbers the whole time," Keenan said. "I'm saying we never set a guideline of zero ... That's my point."

Hicks said the city has to be realistic. While he'd like to see a rate reduction, he fears there are even tougher budget years ahead where the city may have to look at big service reductions even with the rate holding steady. "The toughest years are still ahead of us," Hicks said.

Whalen said the city dodged a bullet this year and to reduce the rate next year will mean the city will likely have to turn around and increase the rate again or cut services. "We've taken several weeks to identify $300,000 plus in cuts and now we have a motion to reduce the tax rate, which means we have to find $288,000 ... I just feel a bit like we're pushed into a corner in a real short amount of time," Whalen said.

McConaghy said federal and provincial governments have cut taxes and that's what has left both levels of government with huge budget deficits. McConaghy also opposed the mayor's solution to try to find budget savings by cutting the subdivision land account by an amount equivalent to the $288,000 needed to effect the tax rate reduction.

Woodside presented a second motion that passed six to five with O'Brien breaking the tie vote to chop the subdivision land account by that amount.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

York Arena Debate Continues
(as broadcast by CBC NB on December 13/10)

This is a video of the CBC television interview I (and others) did on this subject

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5aA4wUSrOOg
Council Wage Freeze Sought
(published int he Daily Gleaner on December 14/10)

Two city councillors who opposed giving the city's non-bargaining staff a two per cent wage hike say they're equally opposed to city councillors getting a cost-of-living adjustment to their stipends in 2011.

Finance committee chairman Coun. Mike O'Brien didn't get a chance to speak when he chaired the open budget meeting, at which councillors debated whether to hike the managerial salary scale for 2011 by two per cent.

The wage hike also applies to Local 3864, technical and professional employees, who tie their salary adjustments to the managerial pay scale.
The two per cent also applies to non-bargaining personnel such as administrative assistants and non-unionized clerical personnel.

O'Brien and Coun. Jordan Graham were told at Monday night's council meeting that they would have to introduce a separate motion to create a wage freeze on council pay cheques. After the meeting, O'Brien said he and Graham will have a talk and figure out the protocols for bringing the council wage freeze forward. Mayor Brad Woodside asked them if they wanted to impose the freeze permanently or for the 2011 budget year only. Graham suggested it be for the 2011 budget year and be reviewed annually after that.

"I just wanted to declare that if it had come to a (tie) vote, I wouldn't have supported it," O'Brien said of the two per cent wage increase. "I didn't support the transit (drivers' wage) increases either. "In light of the fact that it would show some leadership by this council, I would like to propose an amendment to this ... that would effectively freeze the wage of mayor and council for 2011," O'Brien said. The finance committee chairman said that would be worth $6,237 since the consumer price increase is at about 1.5 per cent.

"I appreciate your intentions, but the increases we get aren't two per cent, but are CPI (consumer price increase) ... but I'm sure that many agree with you that they don't want increases," Woodside said. The mayor said councillors have the option of declining the pay increase on an individual basis, but both O'Brien and Graham want a formal resolution.

The mayor said a separate motion would be required if O'Brien and Graham wanted to make a formal motion.

Monday, December 13, 2010

York Arena's future is on thin ice - Recreation Councillors balk at $3.9-M price tag to bring building up to code
(excerpts from article published in the Daily Gleaner, December 11/10)


Fredericton city councillors are starting to divide over what to do with York Arena.

City council recently approved in principle a plan to spend $147,982to keep the arena's doors open for the next year and a half. A recent report said the building will need $3.9 million just to meet building codes. There has been robust debate about how much money should go into a structure that the city might tear down.

Some councillors wanted to halve the proposed capital spending to only $38,500 for repairing the rink's ice-making compressor and $23,000 to deal with ammonia leaks that could pose a safety concern, but a motion was defeated. Another $85,698 is needed to reinforce the roof of the structure and to shore up masonry walls.
Community services director Wayne Tallon told council that if it doesn't direct him to push ahead with roof reinforcements, the city will have to come up with policies on snow loads and keep a close eye on the building to ensure it's safe.

Tallon said ADI Ltd., which was asked to undertake an update of its 2004 analysis of the condition of the arena, identified the lateral support/masonry wall reinforcement issue as an immediate need. The rink's ice-making compressor is being held together with Band-Aid solutions, Tallon said. "We can't afford to have the ice plant go, because that will reduce our inventory (of rinks) to three ice sheets," Tallon said.

Deputy mayor Dan Keenan suggested the repair money be put into the budget, but that council make a determination of when to spend that money. "My intention and my hope would be that we can address the York Arena issue so that we can continue to operate that facility ... I'll be clear, my hope would be that we continue to operate York Arena after (the) Grant * Harvey (Centre) opens," Keenan said.

Finance committee chairman Mike O'Brien has stated he doesn't support keeping the arena over the long term. "In the future, I think we've spent enough on ice facilities and there's other pressing needs for recreation," O'Brien said. He said keeping York Arena open would cost about $250,000 per year more than it collects in revenues.

It has always been the city's plan to build new ice rinks, demolish the old ones and put the resulting budget savings on capital repairs and operating expenses into the cost of running the new indoor ice hockey rinks. "I prefer not to spend on renovating an old ice facility, and instead start saving (and) planning for an aquatics facility that will be used by many more taxpayers," he said.

O'Brien said he doesn't dispute arguments that extra ice time would be used, but there are other taxpayers who favour non-ice sports and as the city ages, there will be more demand for water and court sports, along with walking and biking trails, than for ice hockey arenas.

A Save the York Arena group has put together a report for the city showing that there's high demand for ice time, and that without the York Arena the city will be in an ice-rink deficit just to meet current sports demands.

Tallon said ADI's revised figures on the cost of bringing York Arena up to building code - and excluding any other upgrades - would be $3.9 million. Part of the reason for the higher cost compared with ADI's 2004 estimate is that a new building code has come into effect, which sets different standards on the public building, Tallon said.

"This ADI report does not contain any enhancements to the building," Tallon said.

To read the entire article, click on the following link http://dailygleaner.canadaeast.com/cityregion/article/1347585

Friday, December 10, 2010

Vacancy rates, rent up – report - Increase Capital had smallest increase between three big cities
(published in the Daily Gleaner, December 09/10)

Fredericton's residential vacancy rate was up this fall but remains the lowest of the three main cities in the province, says Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. Fredericton's vacancy rate was 2.6 per cent in October, which was up from 2.3 per cent for the same time last year, according to CMHC's fall 2010 rental market survey.

The capital also had the smallest increase in vacancies amongst the three big cities, it said. Strong employment levels and steady in-migration have kept the vacancy rate low in the provincial capital," said Claude Gautreau, senior market analyst with CMHC in New Brunswick, in a news release.
Employment through the first three quarters of 2010 remained at a record level in Fredericton, due mostly to the strength of the local service and public administration sectors, said CMHC.

Moncton's vacancy rate was 4.2 per cent in October, up from 3.8 per cent last fall. Saint John's vacancy rate was 5.1 per cent in October, compared to 3.6 per cent last year, said CMHC.

"In 2010, housing market conditions have remained favourable to those seeking homeownership, contributing to reduced rental unit demand and higher vacancy rates in both Moncton and Saint John," said Gautreau.
CMHC said that in three of New Brunswick's four smaller urban centres, the vacancy rate also increased this year.

Edmundston was the only centre that posted a lower vacancy rate in 2010, declining 2.3 percentage points to 8.6 per cent. Miramichi matched Fredericton with the lowest vacancy rate in the province at 2.6 per cent, while the highest overall vacancy rate in the province was in Bathurst at 9.9 per cent.

Average rents in all of New Brunswick's urban centres increased 2.3 per cent in 2010, said CMHC. In urban centres, the year-over-year increase varied from a low of 1.1 per cent in Bathurst to a high of 2.9 per cent in Saint John. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Fredericton rose to $734 a month, up 3.47 per cent from the same month last year.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

O'Brien wants to talk tax-rate cut - Relief Councillor says it's time to look at options
(as publsihed in the Daily Gleaner, December 08/10)

The chairman of Fredericton's finance committee is challenging his council colleagues to debate a tax-rate reduction.

Because Fredericton's tax base has grown 4.88 per cent in 2010 and with city council's attempts to rein in all unnecessary spending Coun. Mike O'Brien feels it's time to at least give taxpayers a bit of relief.

"I think that with the additional revenue that we've had and some of the service reductions that we've already identified and other ones we've gone through in the last few nights - and if we had the will to do it as a council - that we would be able to find enough savings to consider reducing the tax rate, even if it's a slight amount," O'Brien said at a budget meeting Tuesday night.

The councillor said he's going to make a pitch to his council colleagues to hold that discussion even though he's already hearing some councillors aren't happy with the tax-rate reduction proposal.

"I think that in this time with the issues that are going on with the province and with the way that people voted provincially for restraint and change that it's incumbent on council to do our absolute best to do that.''

At the very least, O'Brien said, taxpayers shouldn't have to pay a higher tax rate in 2011 and he's confident council can pull it off.

In 2010, Fredericton city council voted to increase taxes by 0.85 cents. That put the city's tax rate at $1.42, from $141 per $100 of assessment. For a home valued at $150,000, the rate increase meant an additional $70.18 per year. It was the first tax rate hike in seven years.

But property taxes are made up of two components, the tax rate and the assessment on a property. Even if the rate remains the same, if a home's value rises, then so will the tax bill.

With all the work councillors have been pouring into reviewing services - much of that discussion behind closed doors because of the implications for cutting personnel - O'Brien said he doesn't think Fredericton is going to have a budget ready before the end of the year.

Traditionally, Fredericton has filed its annual operating and capital fund budget by the end of December. But O'Brien said there's another budget meeting set for Dec. 15 to talk about the contentious issue of how much money to hand out in grants and to decide who receives them.

Nor has council run through a final version of the operating budget proposals for each department. For that reason - and given the timing of the Christmas holidays - O'Brien said he can't imagine having the document pulled together before Christmas.

The finance chairman said he wants to be sure that the province isn't going to download additional costs on the city between now and February.

With an open budget process, O'Brien said, it's a learning curve for council too. "I just don't see how we can have a budget ready before Dec. 31.''

At least one councillor is publicly supporting O'Brien's call for a debate. Coun. Jordan Graham wants to have the tax-rate reduction talk as part of the current round of budget preparation meetings.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Province announces municipal tax bases
(posted by KHJ Radio News, December 07/10)

The province has announced the municipal tax bases, and the numbers are up. The figures reflect the value of new construction and existing property and is the base upon which the municipal tax rate applies. Fredericton's tax base has increased by close to five per cent, or just over $270 million. The city's finance committee chair says that's good news. Councillor Mike O'Brien says when they started budget discussions the numbers were based on a tax base increase of four percent. He says with the bump slightly higher than forecast, that's even more revenue.

O'Brien is challenging his council colleagues to at least discuss, in public, a possible decrease in the city's tax rate. Oromocto's tax base is up more than 6.5 per cent, while New Maryland is up just over two per cent.
Cities Feel Tax Pinch
(exceprt from article posted in the Times-Transcript,December 07/10)

New Brunswick municipalities are under pressure to curb costs as the latest property tax base figures released by the Department of Local Government reveal a squeeze in the rise in revenues.

After years of rising home values, soaring tax bills and bulging municipal coffers, the Progressive Conservative cap on the growth of property assessments has muted past increases.

Overall, the 2011 tax base for cities, towns, villages and rural communities in New Brunswick has climbed by $1.8 billion or 4.7 per cent from last year's figures. While municipalities will benefit from an increase in the tax base, it falls short of the more than seven per cent spikes of previous years.

Local Government Minister Bruce Fitch said the increases this year are attributed to a combination of new construction and an increase in the value of existing properties. "But owner-occupied property increases were limited by the three per cent property assessment cap brought forward by our government," he said.

Of the province's three biggest cities, Moncton fared best with a tax base increase of $376 million or more than six per cent to $6.28billion. Fredericton's tax base increased $270 million to $5.81 billion, an increase of 4.88 per cent. Saint John's tax based increased $234 million or 4.01 per cent to $6.10 billion.

By comparison, in 2009 Moncton's tax base increased by 7.90 per cent, Fredericton's by 7.92 per cent and Saint John's by 9.08 per cent.

The downward trend of municipal property tax bases coupled with a decrease in the unconditional grant signals the onset of municipal belt-tightening, Fitch said.

"Municipalities were hit with a double whammy this week with changes to the unconditional grant and now a change in the tax assessment," Fitch said, referring to decision to cut unconditional grants by one per cent to save the province nearly $700,000.

"But taxpayers are overburdened and we've got to find a middle ground," he said. "The three per cent cap on assessments protects residents and municipalities still see positive growth."

A property owner's tax bill is determined by taking the municipal tax rate and multiplying for each $100 of assessed value.

For example, the average tax rate for New Brunswick cities is $1.62. For a house assessed at $100,000, the property tax bill would be $1,620. The average tax rate in towns is slightly lower at $1.36 whereas villages are the most affordable at $1.26.

The tax bases are used by municipalities to determine their tax rates in time for budget preparations, due by the end of the month. The growth in assessments means municipalities can collect millions of additional dollars without raising taxes.

"We're confident we can deliver a budget with no tax rate increases," said Mike O'Brien, a Fredericton city councillor and chairman of the city's finance committee.

Given 90 per cent of Fredericton's revenues come from property taxes and unconditional grants, however, O'Brien said every item in the city's budget will be reviewed.

"We'll have some soul searching to do to find reductions and efficiencies in the programs and services we offer residents," he said. "There has been a slow creep in budget over the years and it's time to start restraining spending."

Monday, December 06, 2010

City's jobless rate holds at 5.7%
(excerpts from article published in the Daily Gleaner, December 04/10)
Fredericton's unemployment rate in November held steady at 5.7 per cent for the third month in a row, says Statistics Canada. The capital also continues to have the lowest unemployment rate of New Brunswick's big three cities, according to the Statistics Canada labour survey for November released Friday. Fredericton's unemployment rate this year peaked in August at 5.9 per cent.

"I'm not surprised to see that it stayed stable at the same rate it has been through the fall," said Susan Holt, CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce. "What we are feeling from members of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce is a bit of a wait-and-see feeling still." She said there's optimism in the business community that is leading to some hiring.

"But there is also some consideration of what may be in the budget as we hear about program cuts and funding cuts from the provincial team," said Holt. "There is a sense that we want to see what is coming in the new year."
Saint John's unemployment rate for November was seven per cent, down from 7.8 per cent in October, said Statistics Canada.

Moncton's unemployment rate was also seven per cent, up from 6.9 per cent in October. New Brunswick's unemployment rate rose to 10.3 per cent from 9.8 per cent in October, which is also up 1.6 per cent from the same month last year.

Full-time employment in New Brunswick fell to 304,400 jobs from 306,700 jobs in October, said Statistics Canada. Part-time employment in the province rose to 57,300 jobs in November, compared to 55,500 jobs in October.

Holt said it doesn't go unnoticed that the provincial unemployment rate is increasing even though that impact isn't felt in Fredericton. "We don't take it lightly when there are people in our province who are unemployed," she said.

"I trust that a number of smart people are thinking about how we deal with the facts that some of my members can't find the folks they need while some New Brunswickers can't find the work they need. We hope to make progress on that kind of a skills-matching problem in the future."
Canada's unemployment rate fell to 7.6 per cent in November.

To view the full story, click on
http://dailygleaner.canadaeast.com/cityregion/article/1337205

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Municipalities mull fallout of grant cut
(excerpt from CBC NB News Post, December 03/10)

Fredericton Coun. Mike O'Brien said cuts were already being considered before the province's grant was trimmed. (CBC)

New Brunswick municipalities have difficult decisions ahead as they begin to discuss how to deal with a reduction in the unconditional grants they receive from the province. The province announced Thursday that it would cut the grants by one per cent. It's also limiting property tax revenue by capping assessment increases at three per cent.

That means municipalities must decide which services are essential and which ones can be trimmed as they prepare their next budgets.

The City of Fredericton, for example, is losing $58,000 from its total budget of $100 million. The city's finance committee chair, Coun. Mike O'Brien, said cuts were already being considered before the grant cuts were announced.

"We started our 2011 budget process with a detailed review of every service that we offer to the public and even internal services, knowing that there'd be some implications on property taxes, which we're going to feel this year, and with an eye to the possibility of a reduction in the unconditional grant," he said. "So it's not unexpected. But it'll raise some more challenges for us."

The challenges will likely continue to grow as municipalities expect they'll have to follow the province's lead and absorb cuts of two per cent in subsequent years. The one per cent cut will reduce the unconditional grant program to $67.3 million provincewide.

The New Brunswick government is facing an $820-million deficit in 2010-11.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Measha gets Grammy nomination
(exceprts from article published in the Telegraph Journal, December 03/10)


She's won a Juno, and even hosted the Canadian awards show. She sang the Olympic Hymn at the Vancouver Olympics and performed on stages around the world. And now, she can add a Grammy nomination to her list of achievements.

New Brunswick's Measha Brueggergosman has been nominated in the "best classical vocal performance" category for Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder, which she recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra. She performed the Wagner work under music director Franz Welser-Möst on the label Deutsche Grammophon.

The 33-year-old native of Fredericton began singing in the choir of the Baptist church in which she grew up, and started studying voice and piano at a young age. Today, she's a critically acclaimed performer who has appeared on some of the world's most prestigious stages, with renowned orchestras and under the direction of great conductors.

During the 2010/2011 season, Brueggergosman performed in New York, London, Brussels, Oslo, Amsterdam, San Francisco and Vienna. She also performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony under Gustavo Dudamel, the young, acclaimed Brazilian-born conductor, for his first concert as director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

When she's not globe-trotting for gigs, Brueggergosman returns often to her hometown. She came back, for example, for the last concert of the Fredericton SchoolGirl Choir in 2008 and she will return Dec. 21 for a concert in support of Hospice Fredericton.

To view the entire article, click on:
http://telegraphjournal.canadaeast.com/front/article/1335507
Council reviews city services for possible cuts(as publcished in the Daily Gleaner, Deceomber 03/10)

Fredericton's finance committee chairman says councillors are viewing a core and non-core services review as a reset of the city's general fund budget.

Not unlike a homeowner who has to periodically sit down and look at what services he or she purchases to keep their home running and adjust any extras that have crept into their household budget, Coun. Mike O'Brien said, the city has been engaged this week in sitting down and looking at the services it really needs to provide to the public and tighten the belt in areas that may be nice-to-haves but not necessarily need-to-haves.

It's not, O'Brien said, that the city is in a financial crisis, but councillors want to hold the line on taxes for 2011. "We're working as hard as we can to deliver a budget with no tax increases. We also have to prepare for the next few years," O'Brien said.

The finance committee chairman said council is also trying to position the budget for 2012 and 2013 when the provincial government plans to impose taxation freezes and ceilings that will affect property tax revenues available to the city.

The city's major capital construction projects are winding down and the money the city has borrowed for the projects costs three per cent of less interest, so the long-term financing is manageable.

Compared with other cities, Fredericton is in an enviable financial situation, but it has to keep and eye on the future, O'Brien said. Beyond any tax changes on the provincial front, O'Brien said, Fredericton's red-hot construction bubble is going to wane and the city has adjusted its outlook for future construction growth to more typical year over year growth ratios.

Instead of the six and even seven per cent growth rates annually in development, Fredericton is adjusting its forecast to expect 2.5 per cent more in new construction in 2012, two per cent in 2013, 1.7 per cent in 2014 and 1.5 per cent in 2015.

Two closed-door sessions have been held on the core-services review, mainly because councillors needed to be free to talk about personnel issues.

O'Brien has outlined how the city is tackling its internal budget review following a process that the provincial Local Government Department uses to conduct service reviews.

"Staff went through all the services that are delivered to residents and even internally," he said. "Within those they did a lengthy detailed process to categorize them into the most important services to the least important."
The criteria included whether the service is legislated and has to be provided by law, if other groups depend on the service, cost implications and policy issues.

The review looked at whether other groups could deliver the service. The services were scored and ranked in terms of relative importance.
"For instance, clean water was ranked as a top priority. So were public-safety issues," O'Brien said.

"We decided to go through every item line by line ... Some implicate staff levels. Others may be that we need less outside help or consulting fees. Some are fairly big ticket items. Some are small."

The process is ongoing and councillors are taking their time sifting through the review, he said. "It's being thoroughly looked at, every item," O'Brien said.