Roughly 60 people were at the Morinville Community Cultural Centre Oct. 12 for an election forum organized by the Morinville and District Chamber of Commerce. Many others watched online via Facebook. In-person guests had to present proof of vaccination to enter the forum and remained masked and seated about a metre apart.
Arrayed along a room-wide arc of tables before the audience were 13 of the campaign’s 14 candidates: mayoral candidates Simon Boersma, Shane Ladouceur, and Barry Turner; and council hopefuls Jenn Anheliger, Rebecca Balanko, Nicole Boutestein, Stephen Dafoe, Wayne Gatza, Sarah Hall, Alan Otway, Maurice St. Denis, Scott Richardson, and Ray White. Erin Vollick was absent.
Centre stage was host and former town councillor Gordon Putnam, who gave each candidate one or two minutes to answer one of five audience-submitted questions before they were silenced by the timekeeper’s buzzer.
White was one of several candidates who marveled at the strong turnout for the forum and the long list of people running for office.
“I have never seen this community so engaged,” he said.
Several questions addressed taxes, the split mill rate, and industrial development.
Ladouceur described Morinville as a place where there wasn’t much to do and where “everyone is always going into St. Albert.”
“We’re a town that averages 32 years old and 70 per cent tradespeople and we can’t even buy a pair of work socks in this town,” he said. (Thicker, work-type socks are in fact available at the Morinville 100th Street Shell station, a store spokesperson told The Gazette.)
Ladouceur said he would focus on drawing businesses relevant to young adults, such as a Giant Tiger, to Morinville if elected. He was also the lone candidate to oppose the town’s split mill rate, which he said “half of me and half of you” probably didn’t understand.
Boersma said he favours the split rate but not the constant tax hikes the town has seen in recent years, which he argued makes the town economically unviable. He called for a graduated tax on new businesses that would ramp up over three years to give companies time to become profitable.
“If we want to bring business in, we have to give [them] options,” Boersma said.
Turner defended council’s decision to split the mill rate, saying the decision to equalize it in 2011 (which means residential and non-residential properties are taxed equally) gave businesses a 15-per-cent tax cut, one that had cost residents $1.7 million by 2018.
“It didn’t work as expected,” Turner said, with few businesses attracted and the town’s residential taxes rising to the second highest in the region.
“We need to bring business taxes back into balance. It’s not about residents versus business. It’s about sustainability to support amenities like the Morinville Leisure Centre.”
Richardson called for tax and spending cuts, and argued that Morinville should not try to match regional tax rates. (Council’s plan has been to slowly move to a 1:1.5 tax split to bring business taxes closer to the regional average.)
“Morinville has 10,000 people. The access to consumers [here] is 10,000. The access to consumers in Edmonton is one million … We can’t be taxing our businesses the same as Edmonton.”
Dafoe said the next council should aim for a 1:1.2 tax spit given the state of the economy and address its spending habits.
“We need to look at not being all things to all people.”
Anheliger said council should establish separate tax rates for small businesses to grow its tax base.
“We’re just shifting the burden of taxation [with split rates] and not increasing revenue.”
Otway said Morinville needs to show leadership on water conservation if it wants to draw industry to town.
“Everyone in the world is telling us it’s going to get warmer,” he said, and the town already had a water shortage this summer.
“My lawn’s dead, some of your lawns are dead, and we want to attract businesses that need water.”
Transparency and transportation
Candidates also spoke about ways to improve transit and transparency in town.
Hall said the new Regional Transit Services Commission (which she helped create) could bring transit to Morinville for a quarter of what it would cost the town to create its own bus service.
“Transit is in the future for Morinville. That is how we’re going to grow,” she said.
Many candidates called for the town to revive its transit pilot project with St. Albert (which has been cancelled due to the pandemic) and to restore use of its community bus for seniors.
“[The City of Edmonton] has had bus drivers [driving] through COVID, yet we have our bus parked, and that bothers me,” Boersma said.
Ladouceur said Morinville is small enough for most people to get around and described a bus line to St. Albert as a waste of money.
Many candidates spoke on the need to get traffic lights built at the busy Highway 642/Grandin Drive intersection, with Gatza incorrectly saying people had been killed there. (In an interview, he clarified that meant to ask if it would take a traffic death before the province would install lights at this intersection.)
Turner said these traffic lights are in the town’s 2023 capital plan and will be built with or without provincial support.
Boutestein, Hall, and Dafoe said the province needs to redo its traffic study of the intersection, as it had been done prior to the opening of the nearby Morinville Leisure Centre and while school was on summer break.
Balanko said she watches kids cross this dangerous intersection every day and hopes to work with school trustees to get the province’s transportation minister on site to witness traffic there on a typical school day.
“It’s absolutely not OK. I’m terrified every time I see a child cross that road.”
To improve transparency, Richardson said he would restore the “residents’ concerns” standing item at committee of the whole meetings, while Turner and Boutestein touted more community roundtables. Boersma and Anheliger called for reviews on how council uses closed sessions, while Ladouceur suggested using online polls. St. Denis called on council to create meaningful civic infrastructure to encourage participation.
Putnam closed the forum with a call for residents to vote.
“You need to vote because that’s how a democracy works.”
Morinville residents can cast their votes Oct. 13, 14, 16 and 18. See morinville.ca/en/town-hall/election.aspx for details.
Check the Morinville District Chamber Facebook page for video of the forum.