By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on December 27, 2023.
Every year has its highs and lows and in 2023, Lethbridge mayor Blaine Hyggen saw a lot of positives.
“It’s been a really good year,” said Hyggen in a year-end interview recently.
The first two years in review of this council’s term have been positive, said the mayor.
“It’s a good reminder of how good things are in the community,” he said of City Manager Lloyd Brierley’s report to council recently.
“You always the hear the negatives but you don’t get the pat on the back for the positives sometimes,” added the mayor.
One big positive of late is the expansion of the shelter space here, said the mayor.
“We heard loud and clear and talked with the province that they didn’t want to have anybody freezing during the winter time obviously, and although it’s out of our lane if you will – it’s the province – we were able to help out with that and make that come to pass.
“Everybody’s got a place to go to if they want… you can’t force anybody to go but there is space if they want it,” added the mayor, referring to a $1 million investment by the province in 50 temporary winter shelter spaces here.
One of the first resolutions done by council was to direct administration to deal with the issue of encampments this year.
The mayor said when encampments are entrenched, there is more criminal activity which is a reality council recognized so funding was made available to a strategy.
“And it was extremely successful. We didn’t have the near the amount of encampments, in fact a minimal amount of encampments because as soon as they were up, they were taken care of.”
Hyggen noted that services were offered to people in the camps.
“We don’t just rip down people’s homes, their tents or whatever. We make sure that the services are there to help them” deal with mental health, addictions or other issues, added the mayor.
“It went through very well last year with this encampment strategy. It was good the Blood Tribe Department of Health was in support as well,” said the mayor noting that organization took over operations of the city shelter in January.
The encampment strategy has a budget of $500,000 per year for 2023 through 2026 and one-time funding of $250,000 for other resources and outreach services.
Festival Square was another highlight in 2023 with more than 140 events there since it opened last year.
“There was always something happening in Festival Square and many people that were not in favour of that transformation have reached out since” with different opinions.
“It removes some of that other activity you may see in the downtown area so it’s been great. Businesses have really boosted their sales,” said the mayor, and a record number of new businesses – nearly 30 in total – have been established in the downtown core.
“This is exactly what the revitalization of the downtown looks like.”
Hyggen said downtown revitalization comes up every election and “all you can do is do the best to make it better than what it is, make it more safe – that was heard loud and clear, safety in the downtown area,” said Hyggen.
He said Lethbridge police have been amazing and noted the work that will be done by the new task force on downtown lawlessness.
“We want to go in the same way we did with the encampment strategy – be compassionate through this. Help people through this and help the people who are struggling with addictions or mental health issues. But the lawlessness can’t continue,” an opinion felt by many businesses downtown, he said.
When the Downtown Business Revitalization Zone approached the City about dealing with the problems, the main players were brought to the table to begin tackling problems, he said.
Hyggen said the City has heard from a lot of people asking how they can be part of the solution, rather than be someone to just complain.
“This makes me happy to see that there are people who want to be part of the solution and not just sit behind a keyboard” and complain about problems downtown, said Hyggen.
In November of 2022, council approved four years of property tax hikes and the mayor noted that with the pandemic and inflation, the City had a double issue to deal with it because it hadn’t raised those taxes for three years then raised them by 5.1 per cent per year.
“If you’re sitting at zero, obviously we’ve got costs and inflation going up so we’re trying to remain sustainable but there’s a time that the taxes did have to have an increase. It’s not sustainable at zero per cent,” said the mayor.
Communities are seeing the struggles from the results of inflation and COVID, said the mayor, and “it’s been tough,” noting while he despises using COVID as a reason, it has impacted the community.
“Living in Lethbridge, if you put all the costs together, if it’s the convenience of getting to work quicker, if it’s less time in your vehicle, if it’s the different amenities we have here, small city feel. We have two post secondary institutions – a university and a college – so look at all of this and I think there’s many benefits to be in Lethbridge. If we’re not the lowest taxed, we’re still I think reasonable,” added the mayor.
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