Hickie vows to implement spending freeze, audit city finances, and walk away from $6.5-million land deal if elected

Mayoral candidate Darryl Hickie speaks to the media during a campaign event at Victoria Square on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Mayoral candidate Darryl Hickie turned his guns on the City of Prince Albert’s finances during a campaign event on Thursday, and unveiled several new projects he would support if elected mayor.

Hickie, the former provincial cabinet minister and one of three candidates running for Mayor of Prince Albert, said the City is wasting too much money on projects a few residents want instead of projects all residents need.

He said Prince Albert’s debt level is unsustainable, and promised to reverse big budget items like the recent $6.5-million land purchase for the new Aquatic and Arenas Recreation Centre if elected.

Hickie also vowed to put a spending freeze on all City departments, create a Public Complaints Commission for residents, and bring in a whistleblower policy to protect employees who reveal questionable financial practices in their department.

He said efficiency is a vital part of being accountable, and he pledged to have a city-wide audit to make sure those dollars are being properly spent.

“We have to be accountable across the board,” Hickie told reporters and a small group of supporters who gathered at Victoria Square for Thursday’s announcement. “It’s 2020. It’s time, and I think we can see from some of the decisions that were made in the past … that things have been done for a certain way for so many years now. I think it’s time to let the citizens know—and the employees that work there—that I have their back.”

The City’s 18-acre, $6.5-million purchase was his biggest target on Thursday. Hickie produced documents from the land titles registry showing that Signature Developments purchased the property for $27,000/acre in 2013, then sold it to the City of Prince Albert for $362,000/acre in 2020. The Daily Herald was unable to verify those numbers by press time.

At that price, Hickie said council should have considered other options, like the City-owned 35.7 acre parcel east of Saskatchewan Polytechnic. Prior to council’s decision, City administrators recommended against using that property because of contamination. Hickie said the provincial government has previously made funds available to help clean up such sites, and he anticipated they would do so in the future.

“I believe firmly, without any doubt, that once this information is made public … that some of the councillors who voted in favour are going to question the deal now,” he said. “When we look at our economic picture moving forward the question has to be asked: can we afford that? Can we afford the next stage of that (development)? No we can’t.”

“I think we have to ask, and the media should be asking, what agreements were made with Signature Development Corporation back in 2013,” he added. “There was some sort of agreement in place with Signature Development back in 2013 involving City land. There had to be.”

Hickie said the City could have purchased nearby parcels across the highway at $60,000/acre, or to the east at $7,000/acre, instead of paying $362,000 to Signature Developments. If elected, he said he would stop the purchase process immediately, which would save Prince Albert $6-million.

“We’re going to be out probably $900,000 for sure, unless the company agrees with us and sees it from the taxpayer’s perspective and they return the fund. There’s been no work done on the land from the City’s perspective, so now is the time to halt it.”

The Prince Albert Daily Herald attempted to contact Signature Developments for comment. President Gord Broda sent an email saying he was unavailable for an interview on Thursday, but would answer questions later.

Real Estate experts contacted by the Daily Herald in August said the high traffic levels would increase the value of the property. They also said commercial land typically sells for higher levels than agricultural because it can be expensive and time consuming to change the zoning. Municipal governance experts who were also contacted in August, have criticized council’s decision-making process, saying it didn’t give residents enough time to consider their options.

When asked in August about the purchase price, and why the City did not conduct an assessment of the land, City Manager Jim Toye said it was a case of willing buyer, willing seller. He said they compared it to similar lots in Prince Albert, which sold for around $300,000/acre a few years ag, and decided that $6.5-million was fair market value.

On Thursday Hickie said he didn’t buy that explanation.

“I do not accept the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ premise because the public was never allowed to have a say in this, or made aware of the options,” he told reporters.

While he supports building an new Arenas and Aquatics Centre, Hickie said the City of Prince Albert needs to save every penny for crucial infrastructure projects, like a new wastewater treatment plant. He also worried the Victoria Hospital Foundation wouldn’t be able to raise the money needed to furnish the new hospital once it’s built. Hickie estimates that would cost around $30-million.

While Hickie has sounded the alarm about municipal debt levels, Mayor Greg Dionne maintains that council has city finances under control. In an interview last week, Dionne said the City was looking for any grant program or funding opportunity to help shore up city finances, but also warned residents that debt was going to be a way of life for the immediate future.

Despite those concerns, Dionne said he’s confident they can manage it.

“The key is to have a good five to 10 year plan,” he said.