Monday, January 04, 2021 - 10:15 AM

Year In Review: Council in Action

Snowblower M. Winsor

2020. What a year! From the storm of a century to a global pandemic, the City of St. John’s was hit hard in 2020. But regardless of the challenges, we demonstrated resilience as a community and hard work as an organization, accomplishing a number of strategic and operational priorities.

2020 began with a bang – a weather bomb, to be exact. The storm that hit us on January 17th was unprecedented, certainly in recent history. 

The snowfall of Jan 17 and 18 - estimated at 78cm at St. John’s International Airport, broke the previous record of snowfall in one day - 68.4 cm in April 1999.  Compounding our problem, the entire snow season has been extraordinary; from December 24 to January 20, St. John’s saw over 210 cm of snow, the most it has seen since in 20 years. 

By 11 a.m. January 17, the City of St. John’s had declared a state of emergency which wasn’t lifted until seven days later.

The total financial cost to the City was approximately $7 million.

During the State of Emergency, vehicles prohibited from using City streets. Our fire department responded mid-storm to evacuate the Battery and our Public Works team were on standby to escort emergency vehicles.

“Snowmaggedon” exposed gaps in social systems, especially around food security, but also brought neighbors and communities together. Other provincial municipalities lent us crews and equipment to deal with the massive amounts of snow; the Canadian Military sent troops to help seniors and vulnerable people clear access to their homes; even our own taxi community volunteered free services to essential services.

On January 24, the City announced a free ride period for Metrobus and GoBus. During the free ride period, ridership for Metrobus was up 38%* over average ridership during the same period in 2019.

Our snow clearing crews and management worked long hours in difficult conditions and we applaud their commitment, dedication and drive to get our City back to normal operations.

COVID-19 Pandemic
Normal was short-lived, however, as our City watched anxiously as a pandemic spread around the globe, landing on our shores in early March.

COVID changed the way that the City delivers services, resulting in an unprecedented economic impact and financial uncertainty.

By late March, we too were closing our facilities and parks, suspending some services and changing forever the way in which we operate as an organization. Council meetings continued virtually and are now broadcast weekly via webcast; to date, we have been able to resume public access to Council Chambers.

However, our teams across the organization worked diligently from new “at home” offices as well as in limited numbers in City facilities to ensure that services were minimally impacted. Our focus shifted, wherever possible, to assist those most impacted by the pandemic. For example, tax relief for commercial and residential property owners was announced March 23 and permit fees were waived for the remainder of 2020. New COVID-19 regulations were quickly developed by our Recreation team so that we could be and were the first in Atlantic Canada to reopen our pools to the public. And our Information Services Department not only responded quickly to help city staff and councillors adopt to the challenges we all met when working from home but also assisted our Housing division in establishing free WIFI at Victoria and Bannerman Parks, thanks also to a grant from the Canadian Medical Association Foundation.

Our Seniors program staff successfully received grants from United Way and the Wellness Coalition so that our most vulnerable population were not forgotten during Covid.  They visited seniors at their care homes and dropped off food baskets to those in need.  

Our unions have been extremely co-operative in working with us dealing with never before experienced scenarios which arose during the pandemic. Without their co-operation this would have been a much more difficult scenario.

Throughout the pandemic, our team has led a number of special events, from a city-wide virtual event to thank essential workers which saw thousands of residents participate to community celebrations such as St. John’s Days, Canada Day (including our first televised special), Pumpkin Contest, Remembrance Day at Home, Holiday Lights and Jingle St. John’s.

We’ve also funded a number of artists to create a series of murals to recognize and celebrate the work of front-line workers, and these will be installed in the near future.

Pedestrian Mall
In response to a need to assist downtown business facing significant economic challenges, Community Services staff along with a team of key players from other departments and Downtown St. John’s, introduced the first Downtown Pedestrian Mall since the 1960s.  The event was a huge success with residents and visitors, and responses gathered through the City’s engagement process indicated a very positive response to the Mall with 98% of the public indicating there should be future malls. Plans are underway for 2021 although a planned Holiday market had to be cancelled, due to public health concerns during the second wave.

Financial Impacts
The impacts of the pandemic are being felt in the City’s budget. While we believe we will be able to balance 2020 thanks in part to municipal COVID-19 funding ($6.3M) and good financial management in previous years that gives us savings that can be applied to the growing debt, the future in uncertain. In December, Council approved a balanced budget for 2021 of $312,526,525. There are no increases to residential or commercial mill rates. The City’s budget was balanced through a mixture of spending reductions, fee increases and one-time investments from previous years’ surpluses. In late November, the City of St. John’s announced layoffs that result in $1,227,669 in savings. 
 
It is difficult to predict with any certainty impacts of pandemic into 2021. Next year is also an assessment year, which is anticipated to negatively impact on the City’s revenue. The next three-year budget cycle will require significant public engagement. 

Public Engagement
Despite the pandemic, public engagement efforts continued using a combination of virtual meetings, engagestjohns.ca and other means. Projects included the Downtown Pedestrian Mall, Sidewalk Snow Clearing, Churchill Square, the Water Street Infrastructure Project – Phase 3, Mews Centre Replacement, Sustainability and Rennie’s River Flood Mitigation. We increased the number of registered users on engagestjohns.ca by 33%.

Council Changes
Throughout the year, we saw changes to the composition of our Council. In the summer, Councillor Lane announced his intention to resign at the end of the year and Councillor Jamieson resigned immediately, resulting in a Ward 2 By-Election in October. 8 candidates ran in the Ward 2 by-election and we welcomed Shawn Skinner as the new Ward councillor.

Canada Games 2025
In February, we officially launched the bid process for the 2025 Canada Summer Games. Recently, the city finalized the bid and it has been officially submitted to the Canada Games Committee. Canada Games events have significant impact on the local economy and leave a recreation legacy for the residents of a host city.

Mile One Privatization Report
In September, Council and St. John’s Sports and Entertainment Limited (SJSE) contracted KPMG to consider the privatization of Mile One. The report is expected early in 2021.

Strategic Plan
As an organization, we need to stay focused on our service delivery, continuing to do things better, providing good value for tax dollars. The directions in the strategic plan are intended to be used for ten years (2019-2029), our goals will be revisited with each term of Council so that we can modify or adjust based on emerging priorities or the changing landscape. The public can now track progress on the City’s Strategic Plan, Our City, Our Future 2019-2029, in real time via a new online Results Dashboard. The dashboard provides information on how work is progressing, which initiatives are complete, on track for completion, or are behind or overdue.