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Not all platform promises add up

So many candidates, so many ideas. What's a voter to do? With advance polling stations opening Thursday, now is the time to do your homework on the candidates and gauge where they stand on the issues.

So many candidates, so many ideas. What's a voter to do?

With advance polling stations opening Thursday, now is the time to do your homework on the candidates and gauge where they stand on the issues. Do they represent the status quo or progressive change? Have they made outlandish promises to score cheap political points? Are they touting recycled platforms as their own?

Here's a look at three interesting platform ideas that have emerged thus far. You decide whether they're good ideas, well meaning but unlikely or just pure platitude.

Cap taxes? Reduce them?

Property taxes are always issue No. 1 in St. Albert, so it's going to turn heads any time a candidate makes a promise like capping tax increases at 1.5 per cent for the next two years, as Len Bracko did. But even if it's feasible is it a good idea? What happens if inflation takes off, the city doesn't grow (meaning no new tax dollars) and grants fall off?

While other candidates like Stanley Haroun have promised to limit tax increases to inflation and growth, Bracko has fixed himself to a specific number and will have to deal with the consequences if the public's expectations aren't met. The only thing more dubious than the promise of a tax cap is promising to cut property taxes, something James Van Damme says he'll do if elected. You don't need a crystal ball to know that isn't happening.

Public input and neighbourhood rights

Everything old is new again. Little was said three years ago when former mayor Richard Plain put restoring the municipal planning commission (MPC) among his campaign priorities. This time around several candidates want to bring it back, with Cam MacKay and James Burrows among the most vocal.

The MPC, a committee formerly in charge of subdivision and development approvals, was scrapped during the Paul Chalifoux council in favour of putting the power in the hands of development officers. In theory, the change was supposed to quicken approvals. Instead of hearings at city hall, developers run their own open houses with a court reporter in tow. Which is better? At the end of the day it comes down to who's listening and whose interests they represent.

Taking development issues one step further is MacKay's neighbourhood rights bill to give residents more say about what's built near them. It would even penalize developers who'd be required to compensate homeowners for lost property values. Unfortunately, such a scheme doesn't appear to jive with provincial legislation. And, to flip the issue around, what happens if an aging building is torn down in favour of an aesthetically pleasing new structure, one that boosts neighbouring property assessments? Should those homeowners give money back to developers?

Zero-based budgeting

This topic has gained popularity among several candidates. Unlike the current process, where council vets new spending, zero-based budgeting requires all spending to undergo a thorough review. It's a favourite of the St. Albert Taxpayers' Association and candidates like MacKay, Shelley Biermanski, Haroun, Malcolm Parker and others. It's interesting to note that one fiscal hawk, Norm Harley, rejects the idea, which he notes isn't practical and still doesn't guarantee waste-free budgets.

Putting theory aside, one has to ask whether it's feasible for a part-time council to venture down this road. The current budget review already spans the better part of a month (not counting months of preparatory work); expanding that process means more meetings for councillors, staff and the public. I can already see the administrative backgrounder designed to 'educate' council. More meetings and demands on staff would surely result in a budget request for extra staff members to share the load. It could also limit council's availability to review other aspects of city business. With that kind of push back it's hard to see four votes in favour of zero-based budgeting.

Bryan Alary is an editor at the Gazette. Read more election coverage at www.stalbertgazette.com.