The City of Saint John is facing a budget shortfall of almost $5 million.

Finance committee chairman David Merrithew points out that protective services, fire and police, eat up a huge part of the budget.

"You look at what comes in and what goes out and what more we can cut, and the fact that we got contracts with unions that we can't do anything about …that's just a massive part of your budget,” says Merrithew.

“I don't know if we're broke, but it's damn tough."

Bob Davidson of CUPE says policing has already been cut back.

"To have 54 police officers reduced in this city since the late 90s is a major major reduction to the citizens and those that come into the city of Saint John," says Davidson.

Many communities in the Maritimes are trying to cobble together a municipal budget. But Saint John is facing a long-term issue that doesn't apply to Moncton, Fredericton or Halifax.

The population of Saint John has been in steady decline for two decades, and that means there are just fewer residents to pay the municipal bills.

"You look at the same issue with Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, so you have a large urban centre, a traditional industry structure and the population is moving out to Halifax and to other provinces," says David Chaundy of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.

Mayor Don Darling says raising taxes is not an option.

"Citizens have reminded me that that's it, they can't pay any more, and I as their mayor and council, I think we agree,” says Darling. “We're not competitive.  Our costs are too high. Our tax rate is too high. Our water rates are too high, and we need to do something about it."

A clearer picture of how the city plans to cut costs is expected to emerge at next week's regular council meeting.

With files from CTV Atlantic’s Mike Cameron.