Rack­ing brains on a bud­get deficit

CBN, Pla­cen­tia res­i­dents take part in pre-bud­get con­sul­ta­tions

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - BY NI­CHOLAS MERCER AND AN­DREW ROBIN­SON editor@cbn­com­pass.ca

It’s any­one’s best guess as to how the pro­vin­cial govern­ment will deal with a pro­jected bud­get deficit of al­most $2 bil­lion for the next fis­cal year. To help get some feed­back from the pub­lic, the Of­fice of Pub­lic En­gage­ment is hold­ing meet­ings across the prov­ince where at­ten­dees are asked to share there thoughts on ways to gen­er­ate rev­enue and cre­ate ef­fi­cien­cies in govern­ment. Meet­ings took place last week in Car­bon­ear and Pla­cen­tia.

There was no short­age of thoughts and opin­ions when it came to as­sess­ing this prov­ince’s fis­cal fu­ture at a pair of meet­ings in Car­bon­ear and Pla­cen­tia last week.

The pro­vin­cial govern­ment’s con­sul­ta­tion process, held in the face of an enor­mous deficit, looked for an­swers to a se­ries of ques­tions. Hosted by Trin­ity-Bay de Verde-Car­bon­ear MHA Steve Crocker and Pla­cen­tia-St. Mary’s MHA Sherry Gam­bin-Walsh, the meet­ings gave res­i­dents the op­por­tu­nity to share ideas about what govern­ment should con­sider be­fore it hands down the next pro­vin­cial bud­get.

A pro­jected deficit of close to $2 bil­lion has left the new Lib­eral govern­ment scram­bling for ways to cut costs and gen­er­ate rev­enue. The world mar­ket for oil has plum­meted over the last year and hurt New­found­land and Labrador’s bot­tom line hard.

Both meet­ings fol­lowed sim­i­lar paths. There were four ques­tions posed to the meet­ing at­ten­dees, who broke off into groups and took notes that will be shared with govern­ment and the gen­eral pub­lic through the “Our FIS­CAL Fu­ture” web­site — http://gov.nl.ca/OurFis­calFu­ture.

Al­though time was al­lot­ted to ad­dress each ques­tion, con­ver­sa­tions of­ten de­vi­ated away from the topic at hand to in­stead fo­cus on what ser­vices need to be pro­tected and ar­eas where govern­ment spend­ing was deemed in­ef­fi­cient.

A few com­mon themes shone through the dozens of ideas put forth by the close to 60 res­i­dents who showed up for the meet­ings.

There were sug­ges­tions to cut jobs at the man­age­ment level in an ef­fort to save money, as well as the idea of shared ser­vices amongst town.

While some in Car­bon­ear thought full-day kinder­garten should get the axe mov­ing for­ward, a Pla­cen­tia res­i­dent said teach­ers in the K-12 sys­tem are so es­sen­tial to this prov­ince’s fu­ture and that if cuts come in education, they should be made out­side the class­room.

A sim­i­lar ar­gu­ment was made in re­la­tion to health care, though it was sug­gested there’s po­ten­tial to cre­ate ef­fi­cien­cies when look­ing at how ser­vice is pro­vided. Nurse prac­ti­tion­ers with a var­ied skillset could be uti­lized to greater ef­fect and re­duce the need for the pub­lic to ac­cess physicians.

When it came to gen­er­at­ing hard cash, par­tic­i­pants of­fered up ideas like prop­erty taxes for lo­cal ser­vice dis­tricts and un­in­cor­po­rated com­mu­ni­ties, as well as the sale of crown lands and liq­ue­fy­ing other as­sets such govern­ment-owned va­cant build­ings.

Hard choices

“Tough de­ci­sions have to be made now, not 15 months from now,” said one man in Pla­cen­tia, His com­ment pre­ceded a sug­ges­tion that the new Lib­eral govern­ment failed to make a tough de­ci­sion when it came to the two-per­cent­age point in­crease to HST. The Lib­er­als promised dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign last fall to re­verse the pre­vi­ous govern­ment’s planned in­crease and did just that. Mul­ti­ple peo­ple at Thurs­day’s meet­ing in Pla­cen­tia agreed the Lib­er­als made a mis­take there.

That echoed sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments in Car­bon­ear the pre­vi­ous evening.

“I hope that the govern­ment lis­tens to the peo­ple and im­ple­ments some of the changes that peo­ple are ask­ing for,” said Bryant’s Cove Mayor Kim Shep­pard. “They’re go­ing to have to dig their heels in and do some­thing dras­tic. It’s not go­ing to hap­pen overnight.”

There was some talk in Pla­cen­tia of how pri­vate-pub­lic part­ner­ships could ben­e­fit the prov­ince down the road. One per­son sug­gested govern­ment should pro­ceed with cau­tion on that front and avoid com­pro­mis­ing ser­vices. Again, it was a sen­ti­ment shared by dis­cus­sion par­tic­i­pants in Car­bon­ear.

An­other per­son in Pla­cen­tia said it should at least be looked at if costs can be re­duced with­out im­pact­ing ser­vices the pub­lic rely on.

On rev­enue, it was gen­er­ally agreed New­found­land and Labrador needs to be­come less re­liant on oil. Tech­nol­ogy was cited as an area of op­por­tu­nity, and mul­ti­ple peo­ple sug­gested more mea­sures be put in place to en­cour­age small busi­nesses.

“I don’t think it’s ‘Are we will­ing to do it?’ I think we have no choice in do­ing it,” said Crocker. “We can’t go on ac­cu­mu­lat­ing debt at this rate and in five years time we’re go­ing to be pay­ing over a bil­lion in in­ter­est alone. We can’t do it.

“We would never dig our­selves out of the hole … we have no op­tion.”

Con­sul­ta­tions in the Trin­ity-Con­cep­tion-Pla­cen­tia area con­tinue Tues­day, Feb. 16 in Spa­niard’s Bay at the Royal Cana­dian Le­gion Build­ing, where lo­cal MHA Pam Par­sons will host a meet­ing at 7 p.m.

PHOTO BY AN­DREW ROBIN­SON/THE COM­PASS

Pla­cen­tia-St. Mary’s MHA Sherry Gam­bin-Walsh chats with a few folks who at­tended Thurs­day’s meet­ing in Pla­cen­tia ded­i­cated to get­ting feed­back on New­found­land and Labrador’s fis­cal sit­u­a­tion.

PHOTO BY NI­CHOLAS MERCER/THE COM­PASS

Trin­ity-Bay de Verde-Car­bon­ear MHA Steve Crocker hosted a pub­lic bud­get con­sul­ta­tion ses­sion at the Royal Cana­dian Le­gion in Car­bon­ear on Feb. 10.

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