In Brief: AIMS Municipal Performance Report for New Brunswick has generated debate in Saint John. This editorial in the Telegraph Journal encourages city councillors to use the report to improve the city’s fiscal health.

Council’s battling over the cost of capital projects has obscured a larger, underlying issue. By budgeting nearly 60 per cent of Saint John’s revenue on wages and benefits, administrations have backed the city into a tight financial corner. The remaining 40 per cent isn’t enough to fund all the changes Saint Johners want – and as independent studies show, the high cost of labour hasn’t resulted in first-class municipal services.

This year’s wage freeze and value-for-money audit should be the first steps in a rationalization of how services are delivered. The objective must be to give taxpayers the services they want as efficiently as possible. This would allow council to invest more in priorities such as clean water, safe streets and community recreation.

The wage freeze council has asked for was precipitated by the provincial government. It was approved rapidly because it gives this council an opportunity to re-assess how the city functions.

In last fall’s pre-budget consultations, some managers insisted that costs could not be reduced without cutting services because of the millions already committed to wages. Councillors found themselves looking for ways to reduce the financial impact of salary increases.

The necessity of doing so has just been driven home by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ municipal report card. It found that Saint Johners pay top dollar for services that are not in the top rank of quality.

It’s clear many councillors are growing weary of having to micro-manage city departments. They’re looking for systemic solutions – a series of broad reforms that will improve services, while making the budget sustainable.

Passing City Hall’s wage freeze on to all organizations that receive city funding is a good start. The next step will be holding a thorough audit.

Then, councillors can engage in the real debate: how to strike a better balance between labour costs and service quality.