It appears that Sackville is doing better financially during the COVID-19 pandemic than other New Brunswick municipalities.
Sackville Treasurer Michael Beal says that so far, the town is $132,500 under budget with savings outweighing losses in revenue.
“Overall, I see us in a comfortable position, not by any means in a risk position,” Beal told a special, online meeting of Sackville Town Council Monday night.
He explained that while revenues including those from building permits, bylaw enforcement and arena operations have fallen by $117,500, expenses are down by $250,000 because of staff vacancies, the cancellation of events such as the Fall Fair and a reduction in fire calls and training.
Beal said Sackville relies on property taxes collected by the province for more than 90% of its revenues and so far, the province hasn’t made any changes, so town funding is stable whereas larger municipalities also depend on revenues from services such as transit and parking garages that have been severely affected by the pandemic.
He emphasized, however, that things could change in the coming months.
“We’ll continue to monitor our financial position for the remainder of the year and if there are any bumps in the road, we’ll report those,” Beal said.
Economic Recovery Fund
Sackville CAO Jamie Burke suggested that some of the town’s $132,500 in savings could be allocated to an Economic Recovery Fund to give small grants to local businesses affected by COVID-19.
He suggested the Fund’s total budget could range from $25,000 to $50,000.
“It would be a very small, modest amount of financial assistance that we would be able to provide,” Burke said.
He added that town staff would need direction before drawing up a plan that could be considered at next month’s town council meeting.
Little support for Fund
It became apparent in the discussion that followed, however, that most councillors were against the idea with only Bill Evans expressing support.
“If we’ve got some money that we didn’t anticipate,” Evan said, “then I really like the idea of giving back to people who are hurting, supporting local business.”
However, he cautioned that while “it’s hugely important that the town support business,” it would need to be careful to come up with clear guidelines that would be fair to all businesses.
Councillor Joyce O’Neil said that as a taxpayer, she had doubts about allocating extra money to support businesses now.
“Good Lord only knows what’s going to happen between now and the first of the year, whether we’re going to be in dire straits,” O’Neil said.
Councillor Shawn Mesheau suggested that instead of money, businesses might benefit more from an easing of “red tape” and regulations.
“I think it goes beyond just a money thing and it’s understanding what these businesses are looking to achieve,” Mesheau added, “and what are those barriers they’re facing.”
Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken said he worried about whether the town would be obligated to continue its support to local businesses if there were a second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Secondly, it may sound a little harsh, but businesses go under for all sorts of reasons,” Aiken said, adding that several in town have adapted to the pandemic on their own.
“I would hate to think that we were simply giving money to support what is loosely called ‘bad entrepreneurship,’ people that really don’t do well at running business at the best of times,” he said.
Councillor Allison Butcher warned that it could be a long time before there’s a vaccine for COVID-19 and suggested the town may need money as a kind of rainy-day fund until things return to normal.
“The economic repercussions are not just going to disappear,” she said. “We’re going to be looking at this for a lot longer than the effects on health.”
Speaking from his car in the town parking lot, Councillor Bruce Phinney also expressed opposition to allocating money for an Economic Recovery Fund, especially in the face of so much uncertainty.
“We have to be very cautious about how much money we spend,” Phinney said, adding that the town already helps local businesses through grants from Renaissance Sackville.
“Until we see exactly what’s happening with the borders and with the businesses being open for awhile, I think we better hold back,” he said.
Councillor Michael Tower suggested that the town conduct a survey first to find out what local businesses need.
“I’d like to have some kind of feedback from them before we try to commit any money,” Tower said. “It would be nice to be able to help them out, but we really [need to] know what their needs are before we throw money at the fire.”
CAO Burke agreed that a survey of local businesses would help determine need.
“That is something that we could do,” Burke said, adding that staff could bring results back to council later for further consideration.
Mayor Higham summed up the discussion by saying that town staff would have to weigh the views of council and perhaps come up with more ideas.
“We’ll see whether you come back with something or whether you say, ‘No, I don’t think council’s ready for this,'” the mayor concluded.