In a recent telephone interview, MLA Blair Lekstrom for Peace River South, spoke candidly about his personal accomplishments as well as the provincial accomplishments of the Liberal government in 2007. ?It was a busy year?, said Lekstrom. Mr. Lekstrom spoke passionately about his hopes for 2008 and his goals to continue serving the people in Peace River South. He was also enthusiastic to share his views on a few items of particular interest to residents in Tumbler Ridge like Greyhound service and the feasibility of a museum in Tumbler Ridge.
MLA Blair Lekstrom spoke of many highlights of the past year. He was particularly proud of the many communities in the Peace area that were recipients of grants from the Towns of Tomorrow initiative. This program is providing towns with a population of 5000 or less $21 million dollars over three years which will help with infrastructure priorities within the towns. The towns must apply for these grants and Tumbler Ridge was awarded a grant for the elevator currently being installed in the Community Centre.
There have also been many initiatives throughout Peace River South that has seen funding increases. Some of these include the BC Arts, Strong Start, Aboriginal Housing Initiatives, Transportation and Social Housing Projects.
Mr. Lekstrom stated the government invested ?significantly? over the past year in social housing. ?As the economy grows, the rents go up? and because of this, many changes have been made to address social housing issues. This past year, there was also $38 million given towards shelter beds for the homeless people which is also an ?age old issue? explained Lekstrom.
In October, The Red Lion Inn in Chetwynd benefited from one time funding of approximately $2800 in order to replace three beds and mattresses and to replace flooring in two rooms. The funding is over and above the $48,000 the Inn receives annually through the Provincial Emergency Shelter Program, to provide emergency shelter for women and men with it?s three beds.
Affordable housing is a hot topic in the Peace, especially in Tumbler Ridge where rents creep up and up, making it harder for families to find suitable housing. ?The rental assistance program increased its annual gross income threshold from $20,000 to $28,000 which means that 5800 additional working families within the province will now benefit from this program? said Lekstrom. Those who qualify will receive a monthly grant up to $432 per month in the Peace region for a family of four or more.
MLA Blair Lekstrom also boasted on the increased education funding within the province of BC. ?We now have the highest per student funding? we have ever had in BC, explained Lekstrom. There has been an increase in literacy education and ?since 2001, the government has invested over one billion dollars? in the education system even though ?we have 50,000 students?. Mr. Lekstrom recognized that the system isn?t perfect, but commented people are having fewer children,while the government is continuing to increase funding for education.
While recognizing imperfection, health care is an area with many debatable facets. There is a game of catch up, explained Lekstrom, when it comes to health care. The biggest issue, stated Lekstrom, is the ?health professional shortage? that BC struggles with. There is now a significant increase in numbers of doctors and nurses as well as health science professionals being trained within BC and we are slowly starting to see the benefits of this as students are graduating and starting off their careers. However, there are needs that go beyond the easy fix of training more people. Retention of health care professionals in northern and rural communities has become easier. There is a loan forgiveness program for health professionals including doctors, nurses, midwives and physiotherapists. Lekstrom said strategies like the loan forgiveness program are working. Of the nurses that graduated from the University of Northern BC this past year, Lekstrom was proud 83% of them stayed in the north.
Lekstrom was enthusiastic when he explained how the government ?abolished mandatory retirement this year?. This is effective January 1, 2008. Explaining that 65 is not an ?expiry date?, people will no longer be forced to retire at the age of 65. Lekstrom feels this change will ?benefit all of us? as we are lacking in skilled workers and many of the skilled workers in the province of BC are either at, or nearing the age of 65.
On a more personal note, being named Parliamentary Secretary of Rural Development in 2007 was a proud moment for Lekstrom. Lekstrom explained he has lived here in the Peace all his life and feels he understands the needs of rural communities, especially those in the north. The ?big focus? while filling this role is to bridge the divide between rural communities and their counterparts. The Towns of Tomorrow Grant Program, which is overseen by Lekstrom, is working to achieve this goal.
When asked if there was anything the he did not accomplish during 2007, either provincially or regionally, MLA Lekstrom quickly spoke of the cattle industry receiving aid payments to help them recover from BSE. Although cattle farmers are still struggling, he was pleased with these payments. What he hasn?t seen happen yet and which he wishes will occur, are aid payments to people who grow grains and oil seeds(canola, barley etc.). ?Last year was the worst drought in history?, said Lekstrom. The recent harvest was a good one, but it ?probably wasn?t good enough to recover?.
?Every area is a work in progress? said Lekstrom. ?Overall, I am pretty proud of the work we have accomplished this year?.
With Tumbler Ridge?s population growing, social issues will increase as well. Therefore, there are needs in the community that must be addressed. Funding for social programs, a higher police presence and accessibility are issues people are talking about. With our MLA on the phone, I was eager to gather information on what is being done and how he will work with Tumbler Ridge and it?s residents to ensure positive growth in the future.
2007 has been a busy year for Tumbler Ridge. On a positive note, school populations are up, more families have moved into town and the economy continues to diversify. On a not so positive note, there have been higher incidences of violence against women with significant injuries and high drug use is causing problems with teens to adults. Obtaining an additional police officer would be beneficial and there is a high need for it. Mr. Lekstrom explained there is now a new funding formula for police funding. ?Before, towns with a population of 5000 or less were fully funded by the provincial government.? Lekstrom anticipates more discussions from Mayor, Council and the regional district to address the need of another officer in Tumbler Ridge. However, Lekstrom says it is ?hard to comment? on this issue as it is a municipal concern.
MLA Blair Lekstrom is in discussions with Mayor, Council and the Museum foundation with regards to the desire for a large scale museum here in Tumbler Ridge. Lekstrom said he ?has learned a lot since he has started these discussions?. Palaeontology is ?almost a tourism into itself?, he commented. There is a lot of work that is ongoing with the museum foundation and Council. Lekstrom stated there is no guarantee of capital funding, however, if Mayor and Council determine to use Claude Galibois school for the museum, the government is willing to work together with the museum foundation. Lekstrom feels the museum is feasible, the question is what scale would it remain feasible.
When asked his opinion on getting Greyhound passenger service here in Tumbler Ridge, Lekstrom commented, ?It has nothing to do with the government, but personally, yes, I think it is a good idea.? As an MLA there is nothing he can do to help secure this service for Tumbler Ridge, he explained. It will be the hard work of the Chamber of Commerce that will determine whether passenger service will be obtained.
The new year is looking to be a busy one. Lekstrom explained the goals for 2008 include continuing to invest heavily in transportation infrastructure. Being ?able to move products? effectively is the backbone of our economy. Education, the economy and the environment, with attention to climate change, will all be areas of focus in 2008.
Meeting the demands of the communities in Peace River South in the area of health care is also a goal for 2008. There are plans to expand the acute care hospital in Dawson Creek, explained Lekstrom.
Provincially, maintaining a productive economy is always a goal. The five consecutive upgrades in credit ratings the Province of BC has seen results in ?millions and millions of dollars saved by taxpayers?. Lekstrom added the extra money that is saved is now better spent on programs, rather than on interest.
Pleased with the strong economy, Lekstrom said it is nice to see ?kids growing up and staying here for their jobs?. Lekstrom is looking forward to continuing serving the people of Peace River South in the coming year. He commented his ?first priority is always the people? that elected him, then the political party he belongs to.