City finances, transit hot topics at forum
First forum of the civic election season hosted by St. Albert Taxpayers Association
| Posted: Saturday, Oct 12, 2013 06:00 am
City finances were the topic of the night at the St. Albert Taxpayers Association all-candidate forum on Thursday.
Both mayoral candidates and all 16 council contenders were onstage at the Arden Theatre, giving three-minute spiels on themselves and their platforms and then tackling questions as posed by the guest panelists: Richard Plain, former mayor; Norbert Van Wyk, former city manager and Gerry Manegre, former councillor. After the guest panelists got their shot, the microphones were opened up to the public.
Most questions revolved around taxes, municipal spending, utilities or transit, though one member of the public did ask if the candidates felt they’d be able to get along with each other after elected, after such a negative election season. Candidates assured the audience they could co-operate.
Sheena Hughes, a councillor candidate, told the crowd the reason she is running for council is the escalating utility rates, raising concerns about the 100-year funding model for infrastructure and some of the other proposed funding plans council’s been considering.
“If we don’t change this policy, I simply cannot afford to stay in St. Albert,” Hughes said. “What we were doing before was working and now we’ve fixed it and we’ve made it a lot worse.”
Hughes, mayor candidate Shelley Biermanski, Roger Bradley and Cam MacKay all called directly for an internal auditor to be hired by the city.
“To omit spending, you just have to have a city auditor in place, that’s the number one thing,” Biermanski said.
Bradley suggested the city could be better at living within its means and described himself as fiscally conservative.
“As good as St. Albert is to live and raise a family, I believe we can do better,” Bradley said.
MacKay, like many of the candidates, called for the return of the municipal planning commission. “This is probably the most important thing we can do in the next council term,” MacKay said.
When addressing transit operating costs, Wes Brodhead said achieving the target of having user fares cover 40 per cent of the costs is important, but the city also needs to make sure fares are affordable.
“We don’t want to balance the books on the backs of those that can least afford it,” Brodhead said.
John Goldsmith addressed the issue of council’s role in translating the community’s wishes into governance while business management is city staff’s purview.
“I think we’re at a point now where the Carver model has to be put aside and council and the administration has to move towards a mutual management kind of atmosphere,” Goldsmith said.
David Climenhaga said it’s irresponsible of candidates to promise budget slashing.
“Radical tax cutting is a false hope that will hurt us all in the short term and even more in the long term,” Climenhaga said.
Norm Harley argued for a new approach to transit – sticking to peak hour service and perhaps smaller buses.
“Transportation is not an essential service. It’s an important service but it’s not an essential service like police or fire,” Harley said.
Gilles Prefontaine took the opposite view of transit, though he noted transit riders also have criticisms of the system.
“I’ll politely disagree. I do believe it is an essential service within our community,” Prefontaine said.
Plain asked the candidates about whether they’d consider implementing an electricity franchise fee. Ted Durham said he’d be against the additional fees, which would likely appear on electrical bills.
“It’s going to hurt the people in our community, period,” Durham said.
In Bob Russell’s opening statement, he targeted city reserve funds.
“I have a great fear that administration are putting away reserve accounts. I know where most of the bodies are buried out there but I also know where some of the reserve accounts are,” Russell said.
Incumbent mayor Nolan Crouse, when asked about council governance and city staff’s business management, called for more policies, guessing council maybe has 50 policies with which to guide staff.
“I believe that should be 150 policies, not 50,” Crouse said.
Tim Osborne, when asked how he as councillor would be accountable to the public, suggested more communication, even a weekly blog post summarizing council agenda items.
“It doesn’t have to be harder than that,” Osborne said.
Malcolm Parker said he’s been trying to figure out how the St. Albert transit system works and thinks there must be efficiencies to be found.
“I think there’s nothing stopping us from doing a transit review and seeing what we can find out,” Parker said.
When talking accountability, Mark Cassidy targeted the economic development department’s staff expansion.
“If they’re not getting results, then their salaries, then their being there, should be cut just like we have in our sales business,” Cassidy said. “We’ve got to treat it like a business, people have to get results.”
Cathy Heron said cost recovery on the transit system is a tough issue, though noted the Capital Region Board might offer some efficiencies via a regional model.
“I’m a strong believer in our public transit system and would never want to see it go away,” Heron said.
Hughena Burke suggested public consultation for transit, and said she’d work for collaboration and research on all city issues.
“I promise to work hard to ensure council does its due diligence,” Burke said.
Gareth Jones suggested increasing councillor and community involvement in planning via a municipal planning commission, and more councillor work in general to prepare.
“It will increase the workload for councillors but that comes with the job,” Jones said.