By Peggy Revell on October 4, 2017.
Unsurprisingly, it was economic development and financial policy dominating the first municipal election forum hosted Tuesday evening by the local Chamber of Commerce at the Medicine Hat College Theatre.
With topics like job growth, diversification, off-site levies, the boom/bust cycle and sustainable municipal finances, incumbents Robert Dumanowski, Julie Friesen, Jamie McIntosh and Jim Turner were often defending council decisions against challengers Immanuel Moritz, Leslie Rath, Ryan Regnier, Kris Samraj, Colette Smithers and Phil Turnbull.
“I can assure you there is no slouching going on,” said Friesen on how council and the city has been working toward economic diversification — but due to confidentiality, details aren’t always publicly available.
There has been an “economic burst” due to the work done in the past four years, said Dumanowski, pointing to efforts by Invest Medicine Hat to bring in new business, alongside the “incredible job” the Destination Marketing Organization has made when it comes to tourism.
Medicine Hat “didn’t really have a plan for economic development” four years ago, said Turner, but this has changed, also pointing to the great job” done with tourism, the new sports advisory committee and how the time frame for businesses to get development permits has improved.
“Invest Medicine Hat has created new jobs,” said McIntosh, while the creation of the city’s own Heritage fund has put it “down the right path.”
Other candidates felt more could be done.
Turnbull pointed to what Moose Jaw’s five-year phase-in plan on taxes for new businesses building there and those expanding, alongside grants. “We have so many resources here,” he said, saying that should be brought on board for development planning.
And Turnbull criticized Invest Medicine Hat —claiming while general manager and local businessman Ryan Jackson is a “great guy,” he feels there’s a conflict of interest having him at the group’s head.
“We need to work hard to bring business here,” said Moritz. “We also need to work on business retention.”
For Moritz, this means focusing on solar, greenhouses, water natural gas and other aspects that will attract business.
The city must “create a climate of opportunity,” he said, with city and businesses working as a team.
Council needs to do more to assist companies, said Rath — including through offering free land and free taxes “just to get them situated here.”
“We need to give an incentive to build here,” he said.
Regnier also agreed with incentives like these.
“We need to build industry within the community,” he said, not just on attracting outside companies, giving the example of hiring within the city for construction projects.
Regnier also pointed to the need for well-paying jobs.
“There’s lots of low paying jobs. (We want to) work a job where you do a days work and come home … not have to work another job to make ends meet.”
It’s not the city’s job to create jobs, said Samraj — but to create the right environment.
“Good council decisions” and “good deliberations” will lead to more growth. Samraj also said he would like to see Invest Medicine Hat expanded.
One of the greatest concerns Smithers said she has heard from people is the lack of communication between council, business and the public — the “recent transit debacle” being an example. She wants to see a move toward renewable energy, with workers transferring skills to this area.
Smithers wants to see a regional approach to economic development, one where southeast Alberta is seen as the “opportunity quarter.”
She questioned council’s decision to pull out of the regionally-based Economic Development Alliance, going instead with Invest Medicine Hat.
But McIntosh defended pulling out of the EDA, because quarterly reports to council consisted of a report with how many website hits there were.
All the candidates called for fiscal responsibility —finding efficiencies and better money management.
Financially Fit was “adopted by council courageously,” said Dumanowski, adding it was difficult but needed. This included letting go some staff, attrition, a service fee review and union negotiations that resulted in zero per cent raises.
“Unfortunately every time we go to reduce services people get upset,” said Turner, pointing to the $15-million deficit that still has to be overcome.
Financially Fit was about “trying to find a balanced approach,” said Friesen, and included tough decisions.
Turnbull pledged to be fiscally responsible and vigilant — calling for value audits and finding efficiencies within the city, adding that raising taxes and fees is the last thing people want done.
For Moritz, the city needs to grow in demographics, so its tax-base is broader.
“There are not enough people to cover the … debt,” he said.
Rath said he wants to see strict budgeting, and projects spread out over years instead of money being borrowed.
“It’s by just managing our money better,” he said about a balanced budget.
It’s about controlling city finances, said Samraj on sustainable budgets — criticizing the city for the money lost due to the transit changes, and the decision to build the Canalta Centre outside of the city instead of building where there’s more density.
“(The financial problems) have been decades in the making, it will take a while to solve them,” he said —but stressed the city needs to talk the public before making service cuts.
Cuts need to be brought to the public, Regnier agreed, and the community needs to be more involved with decision making. Regnier wants to see the city spending only money it has, finish old projects before starting new ones.
As for off-site levies and the municipal assist grant for new development, incumbents Friesen, Dumanowski, Turner and McIntosh all spoke out in favour of keeping it. Turnbull, Moritz, Regnier all said they felt in favour of it for the time being but wanted to see it phased out. Rath said he wasn’t in favour of it, while both Smithers and Samraj declined to take a position due to an admitted lack of knowledge on the issue.
All candidates spoke in favour of protecting the “Medicine Hat advantage” with the public ownership of utilities, although Moritz was critical of the city for not selling it when there was an opportunity a decade ago.
Tonight’s debate will feature the remaining candidates for council, while Thursday’s will feature the mayoral candidates.
Note: This story has been updated to correct the day of the mayoral candidates’ debate.
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