City Council candidates debate taxes, amalgamation

City Council candidates debate taxes, amalgamation

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.


Starr Winchester will focus on traffic and taxation

Starr Winchester will focus on traffic and taxation

After a one-term absence, Starr Winchester is carrying on a long family tradition of public service in seeking another term on the Courtenay City Council


Former Courtenay Mayor Starr Winchester hopes to extend her 21 years of leadership by once again seeking a City Council position.

Winchester has already served two stints on council, the first one for 12 years and the second for three years before losing by just a few votes in the 2014 election. In between her City Council terms, she also served six years as mayor.

“I love local government,” Winchester says. “It’s in my blood; it’s all I’ve know since childhood.”

Winchester’s father, Bill Moore served several terms as mayor of Courtenay in the 1970s, and was the MLA for the North Island in the 1950s and 1960s.

Losing her seat in the 2014 election was a disappointment, but it turned out to be fortuitous. In the last four years, she’s beat breast cancer and mourned the loss of two close friends.

“It became a good time for me to reflect on what I really want to do with my life,” she said.

FURTHER READING: See who’s running for local government this year on our Elections 2018 page

This time around, Winchester is focused on traffic and taxation issues.

She feels the council mishandled the recent hiring of 16 new staff and reclassifying one employee, and she didn’t like to see the staff criticized in public over the issue. It’s the council that makes these decisions, she says.

“How did we get to the point where we needed to hire 17 people all at once,” she said.

The former mayor sees tax savings in combining selected services with Comox and the rural areas, such as planning departments, fire departments and public works.

“It can be done,” Winchester said, pointing to her efforts in the past to form the Regional Playing Field function at the regional district and in creating the Comox Valley Art Gallery.

She counts an improved status for provincial funding among the benefits of consolidating services.

Looking back on her terms as mayor, Winchester cites splitting the Comox and Strathcona Regional Districts into two separate jurisdictions as her “proudest moment” and greatest accomplishment.

“Finally, the Comox Valley could do its own planning,” she said.

On traffic issues, Winchester believes a third crossing of the Courtenay River is inevitable. But the cost will have to be shared regionally, especially with Comox.

In the meantime, she thinks a widening of the 17th Street bridge could relieve traffic congestion to tolerable levels.

She also thinks the city has too many traffic studies.

“We just need to get them all out, review them and make some decisions,” she said.

But she fully supports the Courtenay Airpark and the Kus-kus-sum project, indicating that 21st Street isn’t a good third crossing option because it threatened both.

Winchester thinks the city’s regulations on carriage houses and secondary suites should be relaxed, so people don’t have to apply for a variance to create them. She wants to increase density in the city’s core and make housing more available and affordable.

And to increase government transparency, she would like to see internet streaming of all regional board meetings, including the water and sewer commissions.