Crime rates, business development, employee residency requirements and the COVID-19 recovery were just a few of the issues Prince Albert’s four mayoral candidates weighed in on at the Chamber of Commerce virtual forum on Tuesday.
Incumbent Mayor Greg Dionne and challengers Darryl Hickie, Josh Morrow and Dennis Nowoselsky spent roughly 90 minutes outlining their plans for the city’s future. This was the second time all four candidates have put their ideas in front of Prince Albert voters. The first was at the Seniors Advocacy Centre Forum on Oct. 15.
The forum opened with a question about supporting local businesses trying to recover from the COVID-19 shutdown. Morrow was the first to answer. He said other communities have done more to help business owners, and he suggested city council improve community ties to get everyone pulling together in the right direction.
Like Morrow, Hickie agreed that Prince Albert could be doing more for business owners. He also said it needs to improve community partnerships, but also stressed the need to overhaul the procurement policy to give more business to local companies.
Nowoselsky said the City needed more leniency for businesses struggling to pay their taxes on time, but added that Prince Albert consumers also need to support the businesses that are still open.
Dionne defended the City’s COVID-19 policies, saying there is “no easy playbook for handling a pandemic.” He said council did everything it could to defer payments on property taxes while also trying to give some relief on utility bills. However, he also said the city couldn’t keep those deferrals in place forever without running into serious financial trouble.
The city deferred property tax payments until the fall once COVID-19 hit while also temporarily suspending water shutoffs due to unpaid bills. Updates from the City’s financial department show that outstanding utility accounts have been the biggest problem by far. A financial update presented on Sept. 28 showed the City was tracking more than $400,000 in unpaid utility bills. City administrators estimate as much as $300,000 will never be collected.
Stewardship of the City’s financial and human resources was a constant theme during the forum. Candidates fielded questions about whether they would agree to an HR audit if elected, and whether municipal employees should have to live inside city limits.
Most candidates agreed to an HR audit, which would determine whether the City was overstaffed, although some were more enthusiastic than others.
Hickie was the first to answer. He said council needs to take a long look at the number of management positions at City Hall, since the money saved from those salaries could help other underfunded areas. He added that high level city employees, like Prince Albert’s fire and police chiefs, should be required to live in Prince Albert. However, he believes regular employees should have more freedom.
Nowoselsky said the City should have an HR audit done every year, since high salaries are Prince Albert’s biggest expense. He singled out the police department as one of the biggest expense areas, and said it’s atrocious that 47 officers live outside city. Nowoselsky strongly supported making employees live in Prince Albert, saying it’s not fair for residents to pay those salaries, only to have employees pay taxes in another jurisdiction.
Dionne said he had no issue with an HR audit, but said city salaries are already in line with what other similar sized communities already pay. He said it’s unlikely an audit would turn over any new ways to save money, but wasn’t opposed to looking. He also said people who apply for senior level municipal positions should be prepared to move to Prince Albert if they want the job.
Morrow said there’s no doubt council can be more efficient with how it spends tax dollars. He said Prince Albert needs to start growing, and there needs to be a fresh evaluation of all City spending if that’s going to happen. He added that forcing employees to move to Prince Albert may hamper recruiting efforts, and prevent the City from getting the best possible candidate. He recommended taking a closer look at the policy before adopting it.
Communication and decorum were also concerns raised at Tuesday’s forum. Both Morrow and Hickie said many residents they talked to didn’t feel like city council was listening to their concerns.
Morrow said Prince Albert’s council is dysfunctional, which makes it difficult to attract businesses and convince non-residents to move to Prince Albert. Hickie, meanwhile, said there were too many instances where councillors were disrespectful towards their colleagues or members of the public who spoke at council meetings.
Morrow said the City should be open to holding town hall meetings if it would help give residents a voice. Hickie advocated for an increase in input from seniors, and other groups that may not be able to attend public meetings.
Nowoselsky said the City already had a useful tool for gathering feedback with its ward meeting system. However, he also said those meetings don’t happen nearly often enough. Nowoselsky spent the last four years representing Ward 7 on city council, and said he believes they did a decent job at listening to residents. However, he also said there was always room for improvement.
Dionne argued that the city already does a good job of listening to residents, and pointed to the new aquatics and arenas complex as an example. He said planning and development surveys showed a majority of residents wanted a city-owned indoor pool, so council made building such a facility a priority. He also said he was willing to expand the ward meeting system if residents wanted more of them.
Candidates also faced questions about whether they would vote to rescind the back alley curfew bylaw passed earlier this year. Only Hickie said yes. He argued it was not an effective way to prevent crime, and would lead to accusations of carding and racism, even when police officers are doing the best they can.
Morrow said there was a slim chance he would vote to repeal it, but noted the bylaw is popular with residents and seemed to be working as intended. Dionne called suggestions of carding “smoke and mirrors” and argued the bylaw was popular with residents of all ethnicities. Nowoselsky also said the bylaw was well-received in his area.
Candidates were also asked about their views on using neighbourhood watch groups to decrease crime, promoting land-swaps with local non-profits, plans for decreasing the number of derelict properties in Prince Albert, and views on the City’s role in fundraising for the new Victoria Hospital expansion.
To watch the full 90-minute forum, visit the Prince Albert and District Chamber of Commerce Facebook or YouTube pages.
Ward candidates will take part in their own form on Wednesday, Oct. 28 starting at 6:30 p.m.
The 2020 municipal election is on Nov. 9.