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Arden packed for all-candidates forum

Taxes were the dominant issue at the first all-candidates forum of St. Albert's civic election. About 500 people packed the Arden Theatre Tuesday evening as St. Albert residents gathered to quiz the candidates running for city council.

Taxes were the dominant issue at the first all-candidates forum of St. Albert's civic election.

About 500 people packed the Arden Theatre Tuesday evening as St. Albert residents gathered to quiz the candidates running for city council.

"I truly believe that council doesn't really care," said one woman. "You don't really care about issues out there, you just go about your business and what your vision is."

"I would like to have some of my life for myself. I'm sick and tired of paying taxes."

Both mayoral candidates and all 13 people seeking a council seat provided their take on what council can do to ease the burden on taxpayers.

Mayor Nolan Crouse pledged a complete review of city operations.

"What I'm calling for if I'm elected is what I would call a complete efficiency review of city hall with all the departments," he said. "I think we have to peel all the layers off and get right down to it."

Crouse said the most likely place to find savings is in the city's capital budget.

Crouse's opponent Shelley Biermanski advocated for a shift to zero-based budgeting throughout the organization.

"I think we need to stop everything where it is right now," she said.

Her approach would be to figure out what level of spending is absolutely required and only go beyond that when the city could afford it, she said.

All 13 council candidates offered their versions of a solution.

Norm Harley presented the hardest line on spending. The career banker criticized several of the city's spending efforts of recent years, such as $14 million for grain elevators and $12 million for transit buses.

"I'd rather have a medical facility for $14 million than a grain elevator," he said, to a round of applause.

Coun. James Burrows defended council's spending to restore the grain elevators, which he noted are provincial historic sites and good educational tools.

"There's some things that are beyond Google that you need to feel and touch," he said.

Cam MacKay also drew applause with his pledge to represent the average citizen.

"The real problem is we need to change the corporate culture here," he said.

Incumbents Roger Lemieux and Len Bracko drew jeers from the crowd, Lemieux for noting that property values have increased along with taxes and Bracko for discussing provincial grant cycles as the root of the city's high tax regime.

Bracko is proposing to hold tax increases to 1.5 per cent for two years while challenger Stanley Haroun wants to keep tax increases in line with inflation for three years.

Council candidate Wes Brodhead advocated for fiscal prudence but cautioned against making blanket statements about holding taxes to an arbitrary percentage, because these can have huge impacts.

"As easily as it rolls off the tongue, you don't know what the impact is until you sit down and say okay, we're going to take $2.7 million out of this and it's going to mean we're not going to shovel your snow, we're not going to pick up garbage," he said.

Council hopeful Malcolm Parker was one of several to tout business attraction as a key. He said many candidates in the last election followed his lead on this issue but city council has made limited progress in the last three years.

"First of all, let's do something to attract business to this community," he said. "I think we have to change the mindset and get an attitude out there on council and administration, what would you do if it was your money?"

Cathy Heron said she wouldn't want to reduce services but would work to find new sources of revenue for the city.

Mayor's race

The two mayoral candidates had contrasting approaches to their opening statements.

Biermanski took veiled aim at Crouse with her speech.

"Proper solutions or decisions about the community cannot be made without the input of the community," she said. "A mayor is elected as trusted protector and promoter of the people and to have the strength to not allow one's arrogance ..." she said.

Biermanski is opposed to the city's revised plan for downtown, which calls for increased density, and is also opposed to an affordable housing development being proposed for 70 Arlington Dr.

"We have plans to fill green space with giant concrete buildings. We have plans to block the sky with very tall buildings," she said.

Biermanski said she entered the race because she was unhappy with certain issues but the campaign has since grown deeper than that.

"What's changed is the number of people who have been contacting me and saying that they just aren't being heard," she said. "There's lots of people who are very unhappy with a lot of things that are going on in St. Albert."

Crouse, who spoke later, defended his record after six years on council — the last three as mayor — and described his plans to improve St. Albert's business friendliness, and work on environmental, social and affordability issues.

He said the downtown plan is sound but he's not sure about the building height being proposed.

"If re-elected I will continue to serve with honour, respect, dignity and integrity," he said.