07 July 2007

Competence deficit the big one

St. John's city council has quite a few deficits.

There's the civility deficit that's been around as long as the current mayor has been serving on council.

There's the honesty deficit that afflicted at least one councillor.

Now Councillor Tom Hann is talking about a possible cash deficit on this year's budget. How dare Hann and his buddies talk about a cash shortfall then they brazenly hiked taxes last year?

If residents of the city took a little trip back in time to late last year though, they'd see that any deficit comes from the generally poor way this council has been running the city's financial affairs. To be fair, it's not just this crowd. It's successive councils going back two decades or more.

But lookit: here's just one way the city could save cash.

Consider for example the sports and entertainment fiasco know to some as the Keith Coombs Money Pit. A money-losing pig of an enterprise since its inception, the project was supposedly doing better this year. So much better in fact that council increased its subsidy to the facility by 50%.

If Hann and his fellow councilors want to fix the deficit, they can start by reducing the subsidy.

Since that subsidy is only a portion of the cash poured into the Coombs money pit each year, council needs to take an axe to its relationship with the problem-plagued facility. Create a new management structure that brings in private sector partners in a manner similar to Norsk Hydro and other Norwegian Crown corporations.

There should be no council staff or councillors on the new board. Not a one.

Give the new board simple instructions: make money or break even but don't expect a penny from city coffers ever again. If the thing sinks, then it sinks.

If the city actually got rid of its subsidy and other payments propping up Mile One this year, it would immediately go from a projected $2.0 million deficit to a $1.0 million surplus.

Just to be sure that everything is indeed clearly known and that the best decisions get made, let's have the province's Auditor General review the City's operations first. It's just the kind of fiscal inquiry the city desperately needs and it would give the residents of the capital city a good base to start from: accurate information for the first time in decades coming from City Hall on the city's financial state.

Mayor Andy Wells is adamantly opposed to such a thorough, impartial review, but then again this wouldn't be the first time Andy Wells has been dead wrong about something. Let's ignore his objections - specious as they usually are - and have the AG figure out what to do.

Given the latest revelation of financial problems at City Hall, it would appear that the real problem on council is a competence deficit. The only way we'll fix that is by pulling the covers off the place and seeing where the rot has set in.

Lord knows, the place looks rotten enough when taxes get hiked and the fat budget is once again heading for deficit.