16 candidates for six Courtenay City Council seats answered questions from the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce last night in front of a full house at the Sid Williams Theatre. Taxes and amalgamation were the hot topics
It took more than an hour, but the candidates for six seats on the Courtenay City Council finally got down to the two nitty-gritty issues that have defined the 2018 municipal election: taxes and amalgamation.
After the candidates gave their opening statements, they were asked to describe their best attribute, how they prepared themselves to sit on City Council and how they would handle dealing with different points of view once elected.
Then came the real questions.
The candidates were asked how they would strike a balance between revenue and services.
Eight of the 16 candidates responded that Courtenay taxes were too high and that city spending was out of control. The other half either defended the city or took no strong position on the issue.
FURTHER READING: Go to the Elections 2018 page
Brennan Day came out swinging with the harshest criticisms of the incumbent council, and tried hard to position himself as the hard liner on financial issues, promising to “take a hard stand on hard issues.”
He said lowering taxes didn’t have to mean cuts in services. It meant doing things more efficiently.
“We’ve got a $130,000 horticulturalist and $90,000 gardeners,” he said
Day said from watching hundreds of hours of council meetings online, he’s noticed “scope creep” at council. He said the current council wasn’t “focused on bottom line issues.”
Day also said council “meetings put you to sleep.”
Incumbent Doug Hillian said everyone would love for their taxes to never go up. But Courtenay shares the bulk of Comox Valley policing costs, he said. And the alternative to having sufficient staff to run the city is to contract those jobs out to the private sector.
“Then watch the user fees go up,” he said, noting this was the experience in communities that have gone that route.
Murray Presley said the last five years of tax increases were higher than the cost of living. He suggested there other ways of providing services that were more cost-effective, but he didn’t mention them.
Melanie McCollum said municipalities by law have to balance their budgets, and reducing taxes would mean cutting services.
McCollum has compared the average Courtenay taxes per household with Campbell River and Nanaimo and found the city is “on par” with those municipalities. And, she said Courtenay’s budget seems in line with inflationary trends.
Tom Grant said Courtenay does not have a balanced budget. He said it has huge surpluses of $5 million, and paid for last year’s hiring of 17 staff from those surpluses and reserves.
“People are paying taxes for services that they’re not getting,” he said.
David Frisch said it wasn’t true that the council used reserves to pay for staff. And he defended city spending because Courtenay has an “infrastructure deficit.”
“The core of the town is old, such as water and sewer,” he said. “We’re fixing things.”
Deana Simpkin said the tax rate was not sustainable, and that she believed it was possible to streamline expenses and keep the city running smoothly. That was a sentiment repeated by Judi Murakami, Penny Marlow, Jin Lin and Mano Theos.
Theos said small business are paying three times the tax rate of “regular residents,” and warned that trend would lead to job losses.
Will Cole-Hamilton said he would take a long-term view, and lower taxes by curtailing urban sprawl with infill and densifying the city core. Sprawl forces the city to invest in expensive infrastructure that negates the additional tax revenue it gains.
“With densification, we get all the tax revenue with little expense,” he said.
Candidates were then asked if voters said “yes” to the non-binding opinion question on the 2018 ballot, would they implement the findings of a governance study suggested in the question.
The ballot questions reads: OPINION QUESTION (non-binding): Are you in favour of conducting a study, in partnership with the Province of BC, to review the governance structures and policies of the City of Courtenay and other local governments within the Comox Valley to consider the feasibility and implications of restructure? YES or NO
All the candidates said they would do the study if voters asked them to, but few thought it should take a high priority.
McCollum said the question was difficult to answer because the study hasn’t been done and the outcome isn’t known. Additionally, she pointed out that Comox and Cumberland are not participating by asking their voters the question, nor would they probably participate in any future study.
Doug Hillian said the province was unlikely to undertake the study without participation from Comox or Cumberland. He suggested Comox might change its mind, however, when their population hits 15,000, classifying them as a city instead of a town, and forcing them “to pay their fair share of policing costs.”
Presley said he has advocated since 1996 for amalgamation, so he was in favor of doing the study to get the facts.
Cole-Hamilton said a study might not lead to major projects, but it might point to smaller efficiencies. He said Courtenay could “be the leaders in the Comox Valley” for better planning among the different jurisdictions.
Starr Winchester agreed that “baby steps” could be taken with provincial assistance, and that a governance restructure is needed.
The highlight of the night might have come during Kiyoshi Kosky’s wrap-up speech when he referred to himself as a “delicious apple” that should appeal to voters.
The event was hosted by the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce.