Accessibility advocate Anne Malone said protestors aren’t asking for the moon.
“We’ll settle for the ground,” she said.
Malone was one of roughly 30 to 40 people who rallied at St. John’s City Hall Monday afternoon for city council to increase this year’s sidewalk snowclearing budget.
Two weeks ago, Coun. Ian Froude motioned to increase it by up to $1.35-million. Only Coun. Maggie Burton and Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary agreed with him, and the motion lost.
Most of council disagreed with allocating those funds immediately because the city is forecasting a deficit this year of between $18 million to $20 million, and a deficit again next year of $10 million to $15 million. Municipalities are required to have a balanced budget, and are not permitted to borrow funds for operating costs.
There is $22 million held in reserve that can cover some of the deficit, but Mayor Danny Breen has previously said the entire reserve shouldn’t be used up all at once because who knows what other challenges the city could face.
The protestors hoped they might be able to change some councillors’ minds before they voted on the issue again during Monday’s regular meeting. However, advocates’ arguments that sidewalk accessibility is a human right were no match for the city’s financial woes.
Council voted to defer the discussion to its overall budget talks later this fall, considering any increase in funds allocated to sidewalk snowclearing at that time.
As during the committee discussion two weeks ago, Froude and O’Leary supported doing more for sidewalks immediately. Burton was absent due to illness.
Breen told reporters after the meeting that council can’t make financial commitments of that magnitude without deliberating the budget first in order to get a better sense of the city’s situation, and what effect an increase to the sidewalk snowclearing budget might have on other services and taxation.
Internal discussions on the budget are ongoing now at city hall. Coun. Dave Lane said there will be an opportunity for public engagement on the budget, with details to be announced sometime mid- to late-October.
(Mayor Danny Breen said) council can’t make financial commitments of that magnitude without deliberating the budget first in order to get a better sense of the city’s situation.
The budget is usually brought down between the last week of November and first week of December.
Meanwhile, council did vote to make some smaller improvements to sidewalk snowclearing this winter, with only Coun. Wally Collins voting against the changes.
The approved changes include: a staff review of priorities of sidewalks, laneways and stairways to ensure resources are used efficiently on the most important routes; to address the quality of existing sidewalk snowclearing; to enforce existing bylaws that prohibit obstruction of a sidewalk by snow removal; and to look at whether some side roads can be deprioritized for vehicular snowclearing to free up resources for sidewalks.
As for protestors, Malone said if the winter sidewalk situation doesn’t change, they’ll go to a higher authority than the city.
“We are not going to do this one more winter,” she said to cheers from the gathered crowd.
‘It is not fair’
Optometrist Dr. Sarah Hutchens, chair of the board of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB-NL), spoke at the rally about the challenges faced by people with low vision.
“If you have a (guide) dog, dogs are trained to find the sidewalk. So, this dog will go out into the road, and as we saw last year, that is not safe,” she said.
“One of our pedestrians passed last year because of walking in the road during the winter. And then for some of the best advice the visually impaired have gotten? ‘Make eye contact.’ We cannot make eye contact with drivers.
“So, our visually impaired pedestrians take their lives in their hands when they walk on a skating rink on the sidewalk, or they go out into the road. It is not fair. St. John’s in the winter is not accessible to all pedestrians.
“Visually impaired persons do go inside, and they don’t come out because they don’t feel like it’s safe. I have colleagues and friends who do so. I know that for a fact that they will not be seen until the spring.
“Everyone needs a chance to be on the sidewalk.”