The $20 charge for lunch didn’t deter a crowd from attending Thursday’s mayoral debate organized by the Chamber of Commerce.
It was the first opportunity for residents to hear the candidates’ platforms as they spoke on issues from economic diversification and taxation to business attraction and fiscal accountability.
Candidates were asked questions from both the audience and ones that had been submitted to the chamber’s annual general meeting in October.
In the candidates’ opening statements Cobb said he was running for mayor because of the state of the City’s finances.
He promised financial accountability and economic opportunities and suggested under his watch council would justify every expenditure to determine if there are opportunities for cost-cutting measures or efficiences.
Cook said reducing crime was the first step in creating a community where people want to live.
She added that in 2008 the incoming council cut $1 million out of the City budget while adding $47 million in economic activity over three years.
Nelson said he would lobby for an upgrade of the Cariboo Memorial Hospital and spoke in support of seniors housing in the downtown core. He added his support for the addition of big box stores to the community to “enhance jobs and encourage new opportunities.”
When the questions finally came the first one asked was: what is the most important issue facing the community in the next two years? Cook identified a trained work force.
“Jobs are coming,” she said. “The challenge will be building that capacity and attracting professionals and a workforce for those jobs.”
Nelson identified jobs and economic diversification. Cobb suggested the community has to be ready for economic growth with a tax regime in place.
The question was then asked what they would do to help Tolko open its Creekside mill.
Nelson replied the industry needs stability and assurances that the tax rate would remain at zero per cent increase throughout the next term. Cobb suggested the city could assist through its taxation policies and by lobbying the provincial government.
Cook said a more competitive industrial tax rate is something the city will address.
The question of giving businesses a vote in B.C. was also raised.
Cobb said he believed all taxpayers in the City should get one vote.
“I do believe the biggest percentage of our taxes are paid by business and industry and we are allowed to spend their money and they don’t have a vote,” he said.
Cook said she approved of one vote per person; she added the issue of a business vote was a challenge especially for those who own businesses in the City but live outside municipal boundaries. She suggested a “better” approach would be to have a “good relationship” with council so there is involvement with the tax rates.
Nelson said he supported the corporate vote.
“If you have a business and pay taxes you should have that opportunity to have fair representation,” he said.
Another question asked the candidates whether they would commit to reduce the disparity between the taxes paid by residents and by business.
“We have to have a fair tax system for all,” Cobb said pointing to a need to diversify and attract other industry in order to share the tax load.
Cook said the tax distribution across the classes has changed little in the last 20 years. She added that the tax rate for businesses are in the mid range compared to other B.C. municipalities and that they are always more than residential rates.
“We’ve said we have to take a look at all tax rate distributions,” she said.
Nelson rejected the idea of shifting the tax burden to residential property owners.
“I don’t agree and that is why zero across the board. I do not support realigning of tax folios to increase burden on residential taxpayers.” Nelson added business investment and growth could impact distribution. Candidates were asked to identify the three things they felt they achieved in their last term.
Nelson pointed to an increase in investment in the community and the Walmart development setting the scene for future developments in the area.
Cobb said the time he spent developing the Cariboo-Chilcotin land use plan. Cook said it was the work on crime reduction and the economic activity in the City over the last three years.
A question about spending within the city’s means prompted Cobb to respond that spending must be tied to the City’s ability to pay.
“It is a huge issue in our community. We can no longer afford to spend money our kids will have to pay,” he said.
Cook agreed that spending within the City’s means is important. She called the recent council’s decision to go forward with a several million dollar paving project that was two-thirds funded by senior levels of government, a “good decision.”
Nelson differentiated between good debt and bad debt and pointed to severance packages paid out by Cook’s council, the firehall cost overrun and a pay increases to staff as examples where money was not put to the best use.
The future of the Prosperity Mine project was broached with candidates asked how they would ensure it was moved ahead in a “timely fashion.”
Cook said the project has always been important to the city adding a lobby group from Williams Lake had gone to Ottawa.
For projects like Prosperity, Spanish Mountain Gold, Black Dome and Mount Polley, Nelson said, officials have to work with First Nations.
“I am supportive of mining in and around Williams Lake but you have to work with First Nations to make the projects viable.”
As a member of the local chamber at the time, Cobb said the organization lobbied for the project to go ahead.
A question on how to prevent cost overruns on future capital projects was asked.
Cobb agreed the community needed a firehall but maybe not the one it got.
He added projects must have a “stringent” budget and if there are problems those should come back to council for it to make a decision.
Cook said the current council took “full responsibility” for the overruns. Cook added that $1 million had been spent prior to building commencing for relocation and soil work and that contributed to cost overruns.
Nelson said if the project had been done three years earlier there would have been no cost overrruns. He added council had an oversight committee in place.