Town councillors debate: to city or not to city?

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FORUM TONIGHT
Town residents can hear the candidates debate Morinville’s future tonight at the official Morinville & District Chamber of Commerce all-candidates forum.

The format will be similar to last election’s forum, with audience members submitting written questions to a panel who will direct them to candidates, said past chamber chair Simon Boersma. All candidates, including mayor-elect Barry Turner, have been invited.

The forum starts at 6 p.m. at the Community Cultural Centre.

If you miss the forum, you can also talk to candidates one-on-one at the Morinville Public Library courtesy the library board on Oct. 3, said library board chair Jennifer Anheliger.

“We thought it would be a nice way for candidates and residents of the town to interact in a more casual setting,” she said.

This will be a drop-in speed-dating-style event where guests will talk individually with a candidate for a few minutes and switch when the moderator rings a bell, Anheliger said. All candidates have been invited, and so far Rebecca Balanko, Stephen Dafoe, Sarah Hall, and mayor-elect Barry Turner have confirmed their attendance.

The library forum runs from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Email board@morinvillelibrary.ca for details.

There’s been a magic number on many people’s lips in Morinville for the last four years: 10,000.

It’s the minimum number of people the town needs in order to declare itself a city in Alberta, and it’s coming up fast. With some 9,893 residents counted in the 2016 census and a roughly 2.5 per cent annual growth rate, the town has likely passed this threshold and can now take that giant leap.

The question is, should it? Should Morinville now become a city? Stay a town? Or perhaps even go back to being a hamlet or part of a specialized municipality?

The Gazette posed this question to the seven people running for Morinville council this week to get their thoughts.

Nope, say candidates

When it came to city status, their answer was pretty much a resounding “no.”

“Given what I know at this point, I don’t see our 10K status as some monumental shift,” said candidate Rebecca Balanko in an email, noting that Alberta’s smallest city had about 12,000 residents.

City status would make Hwy. 642 Morinville’s responsibility, which would mean significant costs in the form of traffic and crossing lights, she continued. While the town’s growth has been significant, the jump to city status was likely a few years away.

Incumbent Nicole Boutestein said in an email that she would vote against city status if she had to cast her ballot today.

“It is more than just a name change. There are significant financial implications that come along with this and right now it wouldn’t be financially feasible.”

Morinville would have to pay for the maintenance and traffic lights on Hwy. 642, for example, neither of which the town has put in its budget.

“This is a significant decision and council will need to do extensive research and several public consultations prior to making any decision,” she said.

Incumbent Stephen Dafoe was also iffy on city status.

“I’m not a fan of instantly becoming a city at the magic number of 10,000,” he said in an email.

He asked administration for a report on the ins and outs of city status and being a specialized municipality last year, and said it showed there were few benefits to becoming a city – certainly not more funding.

“The idea that big-box stores will suddenly pop up if you are a city is false. It’s not SimCity,” he said, referring to the popular computer game.

City status would give Morinville the ability to put up traffic lights as it wished along Hwy. 642, but would also give it responsibility for its upkeep. The town was also already seeing big brand stores popping up, and those would attract more. Still, he was interested in talking about the transition with residents.

While he felt this question should be put to residents in a plebiscite, candidate Lawrence Giffin said in an email that Morinville should stay a town.

“Becoming a city would result in higher taxes,” he noted, as Morinville would have to maintain Hwy. 642 in town, and becoming a hamlet or specialized municipality would require Sturgeon County’s approval – unlikely given the town’s debt load.

“Staying a town is the easiest, and we keep our identity as a town.”

Candidate Sarah Hall said Morinville should not consider city status yet, as it had to develop more infrastructure and business before it could thrive as one.

“I am interested in the idea of becoming a specialized municipality and what that would look like, as it seems the more viable option for Morinville at this time.”

Candidate Neil McDougall said he’d vote how the majority of residents wanted on this issue, but felt Morinville needed more businesses, services and a hospital before it became a city.

“We don’t really have any place for a person to go shop for clothing,” he said, and have few restaurants or professionals such as dentists.

He also saw few benefits to city status, apart from the possibility of more grants.

City status would draw business and investment to Morinville, which is something that needs to happen to reduce the tax burden on residents, candidate Scott Richardson said in an email. But there were big questions for council to ask about the cost of maintaining Hwy. 642.

“What cost would Morinville incur from this transition? What grants or funding from the province for the highway would cease and how will this affect the budget?”

This was a community decision and would have to happen after open dialog and community consultation, he added.

 

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.