Alternative revenue sources and affordable housing, were two recurring topics of discussion during the final night of a two-part virtual forum showcasing St. Albert’s council candidates.
Hosted by the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce, the two-hour forum was streamed on Zoom and Facebook Live. Stephan Khan, former MLA of St. Albert and member of the chamber’s government affairs committee, hosted the forum.
Eighteen of St. Albert’s 20 council candidates attended. As with the previous night, candidates Isadore Stoyko and Mike Ferguson were absent.
One question Khan posed surrounded city revenue.
“What is your suggestion for a new revenue model in the city?” Khan asked. “Do you support maintaining current service levels?”
Donna Kawahara spoke to the importance of maintaining service levels, and on the topic of revenue sources, highlighted the importance of opportunities for reaching out to other municipalities and First Nations communities.
“Our First Nations need somebody to partner with, and if we can provide that it would be mutually beneficial for all of us,” Kawahara said. “We really do need to genuinely explore the options presented with an open mind, rather than just attack new ideas without open discussion.”
Rachel Jones and Kevan Jess seconded Kawahara on the importance of keeping current service levels. Jess, however, wondered if the city is replacing infrastructure too quickly. He cited the importance of pursuing new business to bring in revenue, particularly high tech.
Joseph Trapani argued councillors should take a five-per-cent pay cut. Sandy Clark, Shawn LeMay, and Ross Guffei spoke about the importance of reining in “excess spending.”
“We have to look at getting our administration under control, putting in the needs that residents want, and not just allowing administration to spend money wherever they feel like,” Guffei said.
Ken MacKay spoke to what he described as the past council’s history of identifying efficiencies, adding the city will have to look to increasing its non-residential tax base. He argued one way this could be accomplished is through opportunities made available with land to be annexed from Sturgeon County.
“Our annual historic levels of tax increases have only gone up 1.8 per cent over the past 10 years,” MacKay said. “We have looked at a lot of efficiencies … our operating costs are below average per capita … and our services have been delivered efficiently, which has been proven by our operational review,” said MacKay.
Shawn Lemay spoke of the importance of thinking globally “in order to reinforce the local,” giving the example of St. Albert’s downtown core.
“We need to go outside of our communities to solicit and attract those opportunities to help push our municipal finance back into a healthy bracket,” Lemay said. “I’d like to not only look at models from coast to coast, but outside of Canada.”
The question about municipal finance dovetailed with a question on utilities.
“Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Medicine Hat, and Lethbridge have all successfully implemented either municipal utility or energy corporations,” Khan said. “Do you believe it’s time for St. Albert to develop its own corporation?”
Guffei said St. Albert’s Municipal Energy Corporation (MEC) as it has presently been advanced has “no merit.”
“I’m almost embarrassed to see the existing council deal with this issue,” Guffei said. “We need to deal with our spending, and forget about [the MEC].”
Sheena Hughes and Sandy Clark highlighted the differences between the listed cities’ corporations and St. Albert’s own plans.
“We can’t be comparing apples and oranges,” Hughes said. “The problem with the corporation is it will require a duplication of services, in that we have to pay to double administration.”
Clark said Edmonton’s Epcor is a “one-off.”
“It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” Clark said. “This is not a business that can be easily duplicated … we shouldn’t be competing with private industry.”
Wally Popik, Gilbert Cantin, and Shelley Biermanski argued basic utilities should not be a responsibility of government.
“Each year I look at our basic household utilities climbing, and that’s just a bill you’re expected to pay,” Biermanski said. “If we get into utilities, I can see the city sending us bills that we would have no control of."
Contrastingly, Wes Brodhead spoke to the need for an innovative approach to revenue generation.
“Every opportunity needs to be evaluated on its own merits,” Brodhead said. “Let’s take a look at the options, because if we don’t, the only levers that we have to pull are the old ones of taxes and user fees.”
Kawahara spoke to her skepticism, but noted the province is encouraging utility corporations to generate revenue for municipalities.
“I agree with Sandy — we shouldn’t be competing with private industry,” Kawahara said, “However, there are areas where the city can fill the gaps where private isn’t offering — for instance, organic recycling for industrial buildings.”
Khan also asked candidates how they plan to attract more young people to St. Albert, if elected.
A number of candidates spoke to the importance of ensuring housing is accessible, including Louis Sobolewski, Natalie Joly, Gilbert Cantin, Joseph Trapani, and Ken MacKay.
“One major initiative we did this year was open up our land-use bylaw and create zero-lot line homes, and front back homes,” MacKay said. “This is going to change the dynamics of our community.”
Joly argued young people share the needs of those in St. Albert who are downsizing.
"Walkability of neighbourhoods is important," Joly said. "We want St. Albert to be a vibrant place to live so we can be excited to eat dinner at restaurants, go to festivals, and really enjoy our communities."
Mike Killick highlighted the importance of recognizing “the contribution of seniors” to St. Albert’s community.
“The huge amount of hours [seniors have] spent volunteering and contributing over the years to make St. Albert great is immense,” Killick said. “We need to leverage all of those opportunities for the younger groups … we also need local entertainment, affordable houses, recreation facilities, and to keep our taxes down.”
In addition to speaking on housing, Kevan Jess, Shawn Lemay, Joseph Trapani, and Jennifer Cote highlighted the importance of bringing economic growth to St. Albert to keep young people in the city.
“More than half of our employable population currently commutes outside of the city to work,” Cote said. “They also commute out to access services and retail — if we don’t have that in house, then people won’t come here, stay here, or raise families here."
Similarly, Rachel Jones spoke to the importance of bolstering education and career opportunities.
“I’ve heard comments from younger people who say ‘at the first opportunity, I am going to get out of St. Albert,’” Jones said. “If we foster that untapped potential these younger folks have, we would have a great resource on our hands.”
Leonard Wilkins said the city needs to invest in transit, and work to keep taxes low, as did Wally Popik, Shelley Biermanski, and Joseph Trapani. Popik emphasized the need to maintain infrastructure, while Biermanski and Trapani also commented on the importance of creating more of a draw downtown.
“We need to encourage more festivals,” Trapani said. “People deserve the best, and we are the best."
If I had a million dollars ...
Khan used a bonus question asking what candidates would do if they were given a million-dollar grant to spend on the city.
Biermanski said she would move city administration out of downtown.
“We keep talking about refurbishing downtown and making it give us the return for our dollar,” Biermanski said. “We have people that don’t live in St. Albert that work there eight to four, four days a week sometimes, and use up parking. Administration should move to an industrial area.”
A handful of candidates — including MacKay, Joly, Clark, Jess, and Killick — spoke again about the need for affordable housing initiatives.
Killick said he would look at leveraging the funding by partnering with other levels of government. MacKay and Jess, as well as Lemay, Jones, and Kawahara, also said they would invest in St. Albert’s underserved communities, such as seniors and the unhoused.
Some candidates spoke about adding amenities; Kawahara said she would look into a mountain bike skills park, and Trapani said he would invest in a recreation centre, such as a pool, as did Cote. Hughes said she would expand outdoor amenities and look at supporting community organizations.
Brodhead said he would buy the area structure plan (ASP) for the Lakeview business district.
“With the servicing of the west-side plans of Ray Gibbon Drive, what’s needed now is an ASP to allow business to locate there and start construction,” Brodhead said.
Guffei said he would put the money straight toward a tax cut for residents.
“It would be to give a few dollars back to the people who have been paying the property taxes forever in the city — nice for a change,” Guffei said.
Gilbert Cantin spoke of his experience managing money, noting $1 million was a drop in the bucket in terms of the city’s wider budget, arguing candidates had listed too many items.
Wilkins again spoke of the importance of improving transportation “for people of all ages and backgrounds,” and Popik said he would use the money to find waste and redundancy in current city processes by utilizing city staff.
Sobolewski said he would defer to his colleagues and administration to find out where the money could be best spent.
“If I was to decide on my own right now, I have no idea what the best use would be,” Sobolewski said.
St. Albert’s election day falls on Monday, Oct. 18.