St. John’s councillors finally talk about layoffs and Metrobus cuts, citing budget crunch

St. John’s city councillors are emerging from their cones of silence to discuss recent municipal job cuts and a reduction in Metrobus service. 

A week ago, the city outlined its plan to eliminate 16 full-time positions within municipal operations, and an additional five full-time jobs at St. John’s Sports and Entertainment, in addition to two-part-time ones. Few details were then provided.

One day later, CBC News reported that Metrobus was paring back service levels due to an $800,000 budget cut from the City of St. John’s. 

“This decision has me torn up honestly. I don’t like that we are doing [this] … but there are a lot of challenging decisions that have to be made,” Coun. Dave Lane told reporters Wednesday. 

After the cuts and Metrobus reduction were announced last week, no member of council, including both Mayor Danny Breen and Lane, would do an interview and answer questions on ether of those topics, city spokesperson Kelly Maguire told CBC News at the time. 

Now, several are speaking out. 

Lane, who chairs the finance committee, said Routes, 1, 2, 3 and 10 will be most impacted, with longer wait times in between rides, analogous to the usual summer schedule.

He said moving to a reduced schedule seemed like a better option than another potential proposal, which was to raise fares. 

However, he warned that a network-wide review would be needed next September, to see where ridership levels end up. 

Coun. Sheilagh O’Leary told the St. John’s Morning Show that cuts are necessary, since municipal governments can’t run a deficit. 

“So that means that in every single department, everybody has to look for efficiencies. And I think that that’s, you know, a common goal of everybody. Nobody wants to see their taxes raised. However, services are really important, especially at this point in time,” she said. 

Not all councillors support Metrobus service reduction

Coun. Ian Froude took to Twitter on Tuesday to say he didn’t support the cuts to Metrobus service. 

Coun. Maggie Burton also said she doesn’t support the changes. 

Lane said he respected dissenting opinions, but ultimately, a financial plan needs to be approved. 

 “I don’t like everything in the budget, but we need to pull something together that balances the budget, [that] doesn’t have undue pressure on the public,” he said. 

Other councillors were asked to comment by CBC Radio’s On The Go on the cuts, including Jamie Korab, Debbie Hanlon and Breen. They either didn’t respond or said they were not available. 

Missed money from Ottawa

In July, the federal government earmarked $19 billion to assist provinces and territories, including municipalities, with restarting their economies amid COVID-19.

At the time, it was stated that N.L. would receive $146 million of that amount, to be funnelled into everything from COVID-19 testing to personal protective equipment to child-care spaces, and to municipalities in need.

However, there was an exception: provinces and territories could also apply for extra money destined for public transit, to offset pandemic losses.

Newfoundland and Labrador did not apply for that money. And though it was a provincial government decision, at the time, Breen said any transit losses it experienced were minimal compared with larger cities.

“We wouldn’t have a significant enough loss to make value of that,” he said in July. 

Breen has not responded to recent interview requests from CBC. 

In July, the city had collected $18 million less in taxes, compared to the same month in 2019. 

The monster blizzard that stalled the city for over a week in January also dealt a massive blow to the city budget, leaving an estimated $7-million bill in its wake.

Metrobus ridership down

Since September, ridership levels have hovered at about half of what they normally are, according to Metrobus manager Judy Powell, who also refused to do an interview. 

While regular service was reinstated this past September, a combination of people working from home, plus MUN and CNA moving to online classes, added up to fewer people taking the bus. 

Judy Powell, Metrobus manager, said drivers will see some shifts eliminated starting Jan. 4. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Uncertainty will persist for drivers. Those who don’t have a shift effective Jan. 4 will get a record of employment so they can file for employment insurance.

“However you will remain on the recall list and called to work on an as needed basis,” Powell writes in a letter to drivers obtained by CBC News.

The municipal budget will be tabled Dec. 7. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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