Council hosts town hall meeting

Trent Ernst, Editor


“Welcome to our second town hall meeting of 2015,” said Mayor McPherson to the 60 or so people who packed the basement meeting room of the new Visitor Information Centre. “We’re a little late.”

Last year, explained the mayor, Council put into place a policy that said they would have a minimum of two town hall meetings a year to get feedback and discuss issues with the Community.

The meeting began with a report on McPherson’s highlights for 2015, and moved onto a report on where all the mines are at before moving into a question and answer period with the people in attendance.

George White asked if Council was going to hold onto mill rate?

Councillor Will Howe says the last time Council went over budget, he argued to lower the tax rate. “There are only two portions of the tax bill we have control over,” says Howe. “That’s the mill rate and the water and sewer. Only about 30 or 35 percent of that is controlled by the District. But I think we can lower taxes for town, but that’s just my opinion.”

Councillor Caisley points out that Council hasn’t had a budget discussion for 2016. “One of the difficulties is we haven’t had discussions,” he says. “We don’t know what our costs will be. Having said that I don’t have an appetite to increase taxes, but what we have to do this year will determine tax rates for the year.”

Brenda Holmlund asks if Coucil discussed cutting spending. Again, says Caisley, those discussions haven’t happened yet, but will be discussed.

Mayor McPherson says the thing about lowering taxes means you have to cut services and spending. He invites people to attend the upcoming, though as-yet-unscheduled budget meetings.

Roxanne Guilick says she’d hate to see services cut. “Right now is a bad time to cut services as you are trying to attract people, and convince people to stay. I would rather pay the same taxes and keep services.”

Howe says it might not be either/or, but could be both. “This year, we have a surplus of five or six million. That’s just for the last year. The opportunity is there. I don’t think we need to cut services if we cut taxes.”

Councillor Helen Scott says another part of this is the asset management plan. “That’s where I want to see spending focused.” Like the others, she doesn’t want to see the taxes go up, but cautions that they are just going into budget. “Everyone knows town is stressed, but if we can develop our infrastructure, we can market this place as a home to people working on Site C. On LNG. This may be place for quality of life and lifestyle.”

Councillor Mackay agrees that raising taxes right now is not on the table, for him. But he needs to see the budget before he commits to lowering them. He says that when you start talking about paving roads and things like that, it eats up surplus, and he needs to see what the budget looks like before making any decision.

Councillor Kirby says she doesn’t want to see them in the same spot as the last time the mines closed. “We have to grow the community and generate interest. I’m not for sitting and doing nothing.”

Mayor says it appears the will of council is not to increase taxes, but there are other things at play, too. For instance, they don’t know what’s happening with Walter, and so they can’t make any decisions now.

George White says that there appears to be a lot of District employees. “Maybe a hiring freeze,” he says. “There seem to be a lot of people that don’t have a lot to do.”

Caisley says another discussion Council hasn’t had yet for 2016 is determining priority and what is cost and what that means for taxes. “It’s a balancing act,” he says. “If somehow we are able to come up with objectives but can’t get the work done because of lack of manpower or womanpower, that is not good. We have suffered as a community because of some of the vacancies on staff.”

Councillor Howe says that last year, he asked what it would take to cut budget ten percent. Was told it wasn’t feasible. This year, he is planning on doing the same. “Find out if we can come up with ways to dial back. Go to each department and ask how they can cut down on cost.”

Councillor Scott says that something they’re bringing in are performance evaluations.

Mayor says that one thing council is trying to do is more stuff in house rather than bring someone from outside community.

Brenda Holmlund asks about the surplus. The mayor says that a lot of that is from capital projects that they decided didn’t need to be done or didn’t get started.

Bev Fournier asks about money given to town by the mines for airport improvement. The mayor says he doesn’t recall anything about that, but will look into it. He says the airport hasn’t been high on priority list. Councillor Caisley says he can’t recall having an in depth meaningful discussion about that.

Garret Golhof says when his brother flies to town, he has to pop into Grande Cache to fuel up. He says it would be nice to at least be able to buy fuel.

Councillor Howe says he doesn’t think a lot of people will be flying into the airport. He says he’d like to see people coming in from Prince George by rail.

Kevin Sharman asks about the status of suspension bridge and bungee jump. Councillor Kirby says it’s in limbo. “We did the groundwork on it, but we haven’t talked about it yet this year. When I look at that plan I see something that would get people here. My job as tourism portfolio is to get ideas that attract people.” She says she’d like to see it carried forward, even if it is just the suspension bridge. “Something like this will bring people to town and industry might want to help pay for it. That’s something to look at. It’s different when you bring in an idea and it might work. I hope people don’t look at it as some crazy idea, but as potential to tie it into mountain bike trails, the Wolverine Nordic’s idea for a henge… all these things. We need to sit down and look at ways to finance this. If Council says let’s go, then we have to hit the pavement and drum up support.”

She says she’d like to see funding cover about half the $1.2 million proposed cost for the bridge, and the District put in about a half a million.

Councillor Howe says for himself, he is totally against it. “It’s a lot of money. If someone were to come in and privately do it, I will do all I could do to see it go. But for the District to spend that much money on it right now? Absolutely not.”

Councillor Krakowka says he’s glad they put work into a feasibility study but he wants to have someone come in and take over it. “I can’t support the district building it.”

Councillor Mackay says there are more important things to put money in, like upgrading the trail system for walking and biking. Councillor Scott says she doesn’t think taxpayers money should be going into this. “Taxpayer money should be going into infrastructure,” she says.

McPherson says that people who hear the idea outside the community think it is awesome, but admits it’s a hard sell right now. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at it as it is ideas like that that got us this [Visitor Information] building.”

Someone asks a question around council initiative fund. Councillor Krakowka says they haven’t spent it all, or even most. One of the big projects was $275,000 to upgrade street lights to LED. What happens to unspent money? It is there in surplus to do things with in future, says mayor.

Bev Fournier asks about the cameras the District was thinking about buying and why they were bought. Councillor Howe says town hall has them, but they need to do up a rental agreement, as well as there were some privacy concerns. He says the reason for buying them was to reduce crime. The idea was random residents could have them in their back yards so they could see if anyone was breaking into their garage or house.

Randy Guilick says that paving trails in town will help people in town, but won’t attract people. $500,000 would pave half a km of road. That’s chump change if you can get a bridge in for that much.

Councillor Mackay says not everything should be tourism focused. “We do need amenities for residents, too.”

Guilick says the town needs to figure out a way to get people here. “The bridge is only idea I’ve heard. We have to do something.”

Councillor Scott agrees with Mackay, reiterating that taxpayers dollars should go to benefit people who live in town. “I don’t think we should be just focusing on one thing.”

Counillor Howe agrees. “There’s more to Tumbler Ridge than tourism. We are doing a lot for tourism. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t, but there’s other things we should be doing. I worry about tourists, but I worry about residents too. They say we don’t have enough wood to make a sawmill. What do we have? Land. That’s the direction I want to focus on. If we can increase the tax base then we all pay less taxes.” He says opportunities to increase the tax base through land sales: recreational properties, acerages, whatever.

Councillor Caisley says the District put together a sustainability plan that outlines the District’s priorities. But he says Council hasn’t yet determined those priorities. “We don’t get behind it and work on it. What are our priorities today relative to finance? We need to decide that, then to stick to it.”

Jerrilyn Schembri says that when government makes investments in infrastructure of a community, it shows people the community is still alive and growing. “I appreciate that you’re not turtling,” she says.

There might be some disagreement between members of Council on the actual direction, but it builds trust inside and outside the community.”

McPherson says one of his visions is to increase quality of life so the town can attract people who want to work in the region. “I just rented a house to a logger from Chetwynd. We want to find people who want to live here because it’s such a great place to live.”

Garret Golhof says that the foreign markets are down, and the town has to keep an eye on what’s happening globally, as that affects the town. He says he wants to see the town move on the proposed chicken bylaw. He says if a person has five chickens, it costs about $15/month to feed them, and they produce $20 worth of eggs. That money can be used to buy groceries” He says he wants to see the town work on reducing its reliance on outside food sources. He suggests taking one of the unused baseball diamonds and plowing it under and using the land to grow something like potatoes.

Kirby says she likes the idea of chickens in town; “Don’t forget, we used to have chicken crap bingo at Grizzly Valley Days.”

Linda Helm asks about public transportation to town. Councillor Kirby says that it would be great to be able to get people to town who are traveling the Alaska Highway, but that’s something that a private business would need to do. Krakowka mentions that Grayhound had, or possibly still has, the rights to run the bus service into town. Tim Snyder mentions that when he was on Council, he called Greyhound and asked if they would extend service into town and they told him they were cutting service, not increasing. There was a 25 year agreement, he says, but that could be up by now.

Tim Croston asks Councillor Howe about his plan for housing. “What sort of money would it cost to build infrastructure to support?”

Howe says that his plan right now is to sell options. “Yeah if we build stuff on spec it’s a bad idea. But out the Wolverine, out Bullmoose, we can sell raw piece of land. You put in your own water and sceptic and power.” Croston asks how that benefits the town. Howe says in increases the tax base. It might be taxed differently depending on what type of property it is, but you’d have more people to shop at the store, to buy stuff in town. “Go to town hall and try and buy some land,” he says. He says town hall needs to lobby the provincial government to be able to sell land.

Mackay says he would be interested to figure out creative ways to sell land for business, too. He points to the Trend Mountain Hotel. The town sold the land to them for a dollar, he says. There was a covenant that they had to build in two years, which they did. He says the town has benefitted, not just from taxes, but in employment for residents.

Tim Snyder says last year’s Family Day was held at toboggan hill. “It was cold cold cold,” he says. He suggests holding it at the Community Centre. Council just discussed that it the most recent meeting, says the mayor.

George Smith asks why the town can’t grade the roads to Kinuseo Fall and Bearhole once a month. McPherson says he’s been fighting to get the Province to look after the road for 15 years, and nothing ever happens. He feels that, if the government wants to designate a park and there is a road they should be responsible to take care of it. “I would have a problem doing what the province should be doing,” he says. “If we put a grader on the road now, that would be the end of it. It would be our responsibility to the end of time.”

Kirby says the town should embrace the crappy road. She points to the classic “I drove the Alaska highway and survived” campaign.

Howe suggests maybe get a quote on what it would cost to do. Maybe it would be affordable.

Birgit Sharmin asks if people do come in via bus or train or plane, how do they get around once they get here? Howe says that’s a private enterprise answer. Maybe start a car rental business.

Sharmin says she just met a couple that moved here who have online business. “How do we attract these type of people?” Howe says cheap houses will attract some, but also cheap land. He suggests a billboard on the Alaska Highway: “Why buy in Fort St. John for $400,000 when you can live in paradise for $150,000?” Councilor Krakowka says that’s how St. Albert and Stoney Plain grew. They attracted people from Edmonton. He says it would be easy for people to live here and drive to Site C.

Rose Snyder asks how do we keep people here? “People are losing houses. People are not able to leave because they don’t have vehicles. There’s a lot of people suffering.”

Councillor Howe says it all comes down to supply and demand. “We can’t sell your house for 250,000 but if we can get some people to start come in and buy some of the low end houses, you reduce the supply. I don’t think anyone thought the houses were worth $350,000 a few years ago, but we need to get playing field back to where it should be.”

Kirby says the District can’t help people one-on-one, but can help get in organizations that can help support people, can provide grants to organizations that work with people in difficult situations.

Scott says that Tumbler Ridge is not unique in this. “There are lots of people in Alberta going through same thing,” she says. That’s why she wants to see taxpayer dollars going into infrastructure. Mackay says we need more provincial services. He says we had them before.

The question is asked about the paving of the Boundary road. “The previous MLA for the South Peace wrote they were committed to pave boundary.” That hasn’t happened. The number of tourists on the Alaska highway is immense, and this would be a great alternate route. McPherson says he’s been hammering this one as hard as the road out to Kinuseo Falls. “Maybe harder. We are fighting to get that paved.”

The question is asked about building our own wind power and getting off the grid. The mayor says wind is not a guaranteed power source, so we can’t get totally off the grid, but, Howe says, we can sell back to the grid. He says the District is in discussions with some proponents, and it may involve buying into a wind project.

Tim Snyder asks about the roads in the community. McPherson says they are no worse than other communities around us, and better than most. The District is looking at paving, but there is also infrastructure below the road that may need to be replaced. “We don’t want to pave the roads, then have to dig it all up to put in pipe.” He says this will be a major topic of discussion at the budgeting meetings.

John Snyder says the paved section to Quintette is getting quite beat up. “Who is responsible for that?”

Mayor says it falls on CNRL, but the worst ones have been patched.  Mackay says the trouble is, there is a three-way agreement between industry parks and forestry, and nobody is doing anything.

Bernie Lehmann says he heard that it was the town that patched the roads. Mcpherson says he was approached by CNRL, who had heard the complaints from the District. “I asked the CAO if we could help out,” he says. So the District provided a crew to fill the worst of the potholes. “They paid us to do it,” he says. “It wasn’t done for free. I took heat over that and I wouldn’t do it again. But we were hired and paid for it.”

Roxanne Guilick asks about the business licences, which are more expensive in Tumbler Ridge than in other communities. Kirby says that Aleen Toraville was working on options in September, so it should be coming before council soon.

After the meeting, Council hung out with members of the public just to chat and discuss issues more in depth.