By Collin Gallant on October 5, 2017.
Nine council candidates discussed support for incentive packages to attract business, tax rates and city budgeting, as well as transit changes and their priorities, if elected, during a Chamber of Commerce election forum on Wednesday.
They showed varying levels of support for business incentives, such as tax breaks and discounts on infrastructure costs for developers, and new candidates generally challenged incumbents on city spending levels and communication.
“We have a Medicine Hat advantage but it’s challenged,” said Bill Cocks, an incumbent, citing lower energy revenues and a program to cut cost and raise taxes to make up the shortfall.
“We’re trying to make both ends meet in the middle,” he added later. “We’ve come a great distance.”
Two other incumbents also argued the Financially Fit budget review was a measured response, but was in the early stages of containing costs and raising revenue to match a $23-million shortfall.
Challengers however, said cuts, especially a recent overhaul of transit, were harmful, that growing the business tax base would be better than raising taxes, and high municipal spending was the true culprit.
“We’ve heard apologies but that’s not good enough,” said former alderman Darren Hirsch who is seeking a council seat, of the transit reversal and energy losses.
“We had a catastrophe (in energy markets), there will be service adjustments and tax adjustments, but we need to come together as a city and council. It’s important to know we will be all right.”
Ten candidates in the 19-person field took to the stage on Tuesday. Four mayoral candidates are set to take part in tonight’s event, which begins at 7 p.m.
Wednesdays event, advertised as specifically dealing with issues faced by the business community, lingered long on the idea of offering incentives of either land or utility breaks to expand business tax base.
Candidate Chuck Turner, Myles Mullholland and Michael Klassen voiced strong support for helping businesses.
“We need to focus on growth and do anything we can to make this an attractive place to do business,” said Mullholland, citing his support for layered taxes for new development.
“We’re competing against Moose Jaw, Lethbridge, Red Deer,” said Klassen. “If you want to start a business in Alberta, you should want to do it in Medicine Hat.”
Turner (no relation to incumbent council member Jim Turner) said better business environment would help bring jobs to the community, adding that lower utility rates help everyone.
“There’s no advantage when we’re offering the average (price of utilities in Alberta),” he said. “We’re not offering anything better than anyone else.”
Candidate Hugh English said it’s a fine line between giving a boost to new business and giving money away, but he supports helping the business community.
His top priority in a new term would be to tighten municipal spending.
“It’s very important to live within our means when the city has experienced such a significant shortfall,” he said.
Brian Varga, seeking a second term, said spending was a concern and the recent council has tackled operational spending.
“We need to look at whatever we can inside the organization (at city hall) to make sure we can be profitable,” he said.
As for transit, two-term councillor Les Pearson used his introduction to “apologize” for voting in recent transit route changes.
He said if elected to another term, he would concentrate on improving inclusion and city programming as well as social economic development to create a community of choice for new residents and businesses.
Considering the city’s financial situation, “we can’t afford much risk, but we’ve done a good job of husbanding the finances in the past four years,” he said.
Candidate Maureen “Mo” Roberts said transit changes were “a debacle that’s a symptom of larger issues,” namely a lack of council communication with the community.
In terms of business attraction, she said the city shouldn’t overlook services such as recreation, fire protection and community development as a business attraction point.
“Economic development is attracted to strong communities that support workers and their families,” she said. “The city shouldn’t be buying business.”
Turner, Mullholland and Klassen strongly argued in favour a city “municipal assist” program that sees taxpayers cover 40 to 90 per cent of costs for developers extending roads and other infrastructure to new subdivisions and commercial areas.
“It’s vital,” said Mulholland. “It’s a good example of synergy between the city and industry.”
Klassen cited a “cost benefit to development.”
Turner said “we have to build the tax base so we don’t have to worry about oil crashing, and we have other avenues.”
The assist program is set to expire in 2019, and the chamber has lobbied hard not only for the original deal but is seeking an extension.
That puts pressure on all taxpayers, said Cocks.
“It’s a subsidy we can no longer afford.”
He also flatly said he doesn’t like tax breaks that could pit existing business against new entries.
“When you incent business, you’re buying them, and how long are they going to stay before there’s a better offer elsewhere?” he asked.
Hirsch said some discounting might be needed to bolster a sagging economy, but they should be phased out after a recovery.
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