SAINT JOHN – Charles Cirtwill will not call the City of Saint John a flunky.
The executive vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies says there are still some bright spots, even though his own research on government performance placed it 82nd out of 94 municipalities in New Brunswick.
The institutes’ first annual survey on the province’s communities, released April 8, gave Saint John an overall C, or below average grade, with several indicators suggesting a subpar performance.
“Yes, you are paying a lot more for your services, but relatively speaking, you’re pretty much getting what you pay for,” he said of Saint John. “Maybe you’re not going to be happy with it overall, and I think clearly there are some areas for improvement.”
Cirtwill said the survey was not meant to dump on jurisdictions that tax and spend as heavily as Saint John does. The idea was to see if money was being spent well or wasted.
In terms of efficiency (how much the municipality spent per person), Saint John scored near the bottom, 93rd out of 100 municipalities in New Brunswick. But in terms of effectiveness (a rating of service levels), the city did OK, 25th out of 94 (the base numbers differed depending on the measurement because some municipalities failed to provide complete data). The two scores blended together gave it an overall score of 82.
That’s not a bad tradeoff, Cirtwill believes, but it also means Saint John has lots of room for improvement. The highest spenders should be the highest performers, so in an ideal world, the city would have been in the top 10 for effectiveness.
“I know there’s a running battle with City Hall in Saint John. My suggestion would be that’s not an isolated case. Everybody seems to hate City Hall no matter where they live,” Cirtwill said, adding there are plenty of people where he lives and works who despise the Halifax Regional Municipality. “In terms of a starting point, Saint John isn’t doing all that badly for a large city in a small province.”
Politicians, city management staff, and citizens, he suggested, could improve the city by digging deeper into the numbers and finding out why Saint John does so poorly in some areas.
For instance, it spends nearly the most per capita for fire and police protection, but in terms of effectiveness, scores a dismal 72 out of 94 communities, based on crime rates and property loss due to fire. If it spends the most, it should have been near the top for effectiveness too.
In terms of economic development and planning, Saint John is also one of the biggest spenders per capita, but in terms of effectiveness only comes in at 28 out of 102 (the indicators included the value of new construction per million dollars of property tax assessment, the increase in immigrants and the change in population from 2001 to 2006).
One of the best measures for Saint John was on taxation. The municipality still scored badly for heavy taxation per person – 89th – but managed to post an effectiveness rating of 17.
“The problem with that, of course, is that might be a situation where the economy is growing despite the incompetence of City Hall,” said Cirtwill. “There’s so many opportunities for Saint John, they are really going to have to screw up badly to slow that growth.”
Another potential bright spot for Saint John is recreation and culture, simply because it does not spend a lot in that area. Per person, it ranked 53rd in the amount the city spent per person out of 102 communities. But Cirtwill qualified this reading because none of the municipalities had effectiveness scores.
“Saint John is controlling its expenditures, but we don’t know if that’s translated to a lower than expected level of service around green space, trails, those sorts of things.”
Unlike Ontario municipalities, New Brunswick communities are not compelled to report the amount of green space, indoor recreational area or trails they provide.