A standing-room-only crowd greeted the 21 council hopefuls Tuesday night at the all-candidates meeting held at Matsqui Centennial Auditorium.
While they faced many questions, Abbotsford’s future water source became the hot topic of the evening.
Once the proposed public-private partnership (P3) plan to create a new Stave Lake water source was raised as an issue, the rebuttal cards came out as all wanted to stake their position.
Vince Dimanno led off the debate, saying he’s against the P3 plan, preferring what he thinks will be a less expensive, public option.
“We will take the profit of the private funder out of the equation, we will take the profit of the private operator out of the equation and it will be less expensive,” said Dimanno.
But incumbent John Smith believes the offer of $65.7 million in funding from the federal government makes the P3 plan the right choice.
“That’s a critical amount of money. Without that I don’t think we can do this,” said John Smith.
He said the project can be built cheaper as a P3.
Many candidates disagreed and offered alternative plans.
“One alternative we could investigate … is to upgrade the Norrish Creek treatment plant,” said Terry Stobbart. “I really believe we need to vote this thing down, because we need to keep it local and keep it public.”
“It will not be cheaper, that’s a myth,” said James Breckenridge.
Some candidates took issue with the city’s position that by 2016 the demand for water could be higher than the available supply.
Candidate Moe Gidda called the water shortage claims a “myth” and said the city campaign is designed to “make people scared.”
Henry Braun held up one of the city’s water consumption graphs and said the figures were inaccurate.
“We have enough water, in my opinion, to get us to 2020 or maybe 2025,” said Braun.
Others simply objected to the high price tag.
Kevin Chapman is the youngest candidate seeking office and he said people his age are leaving the city.
“They can’t afford to live here. There are more affordable solutions, we can’t afford the solution of P3, we should vote no.”
Other critics of the plan also urged the crowd to vote no. However, supporters were equally prepared to defend the project.
Incumbent Dave Loewen pointed to the troubles occurring in Metro Vancouver as an example of why the traditional method can be more expensive.
“Metro Vancouver is now $230 million over budget on their water filtration system because they went the traditional method … the initial builder backed out because he saw some danger, some risks … a P3 avoids that,” said Loewen.
Organizers of the meeting managed to turn the debate to other topics, including public safety and taxation. However, when questions from the audience were posed, the water issue rose again and the debate became more heated.
Patricia Ross, the only incumbent who is against the P3 plan, was asked what would happen if Stave Lake failed, possibly forcing companies reliant on water to leave.
“I don’t think Stave Lake has to fail if we vote no, it just means that it won’t be by P3. I actually feel that we most likely will need Stave Lake in the future.”
She said she is uncomfortable with the process the city has used and the way the city had treated its neighbours in Mission. She wants to move forward with Mission in a non-P3 approach.
Challenger Mark Rushton commented, “I don’t understand that you are going to say no to $65 million but yes to the Stave Lake. That does not compute to me … I think that the current P3 is the best thing for the taxpayer.”
Loewen pointed out, “The Abbotsford Mission Water and Sewer Commission forwarded a unanimous recommendation … to move ahead with P3 and I want you (the public) to know that Coun. Ross was on that commission that recommended P3.”
But Ross responded: “Just to be very clear, I was in favour of moving forward to investigate that, absolutely. But more and more I became very uncomfortable with the process being used.”
Other topics created less friction between candidates.
Municipal taxation took the spotlight from water for a short period, as the question of tax hikes was raised.
Breckenridge told the audience that people want more and more services, but are unwilling to pay for them.
“We have to start asking people, what are your priorities? What do you want us spending money on? What can we not spend money on …. Are people willing to do without strawberries hanging in the roundabouts?”
“Nobody wants to pay taxes,” said Moe Gill, who said council is trying to keep taxes as low as possible.
Braun said council has to eliminate waste.
“In order to reduce taxes, we have to find ways to reduce costs,” he said.
Several other questions were posed during the evening, many of which were directed at specific candidates. Lynn Perrin was asked if citizens should be appointed to city committees.
“Absolutely. I’ve been looking at the committee structure of our city and one group that I see that is not there is resident taxpayers and I believe every single committee should have a resident taxpayer on it,” she said.
Bill MacGregor told the crowd that if he could do any capital project he wanted, he’d sell the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. He feels the city needs to investigate ways to get rid of it, “if it’s such a great weight on the city, as it seems to be.”
On the subject of transportation infrastructure, Anne Graham said the city needs a “viable” transit system that gets people where they want to go.
“We are way past due having a designated trucking route in our city.”
She also said there was a need to study the traffic patterns and make them more cohesive.
Incumbent Les Barkman said route changes in the public transit system, including improved service to the hospital, airport and university, have been a step forward. He also noted the city is exploring using liquid natural gas to fuel the fleet.
“Through this experiment, maybe we can put more buses on the route with the lower costs.”
Another question asked of council hopefuls was to explain how they would help create more business and a higher “livable wage” for citizens.
Daljit Sidhu suggested looking outside of Abbotsford, to China or India, to help create jobs and bring business into the community.
“We have lots of resources here, such as blueberry farms, and we are producing a lot of blueberries down here. So we can attempt to approach them … bringing in some visitors here, promoting more business,” he said.
Incumbent Simon Gibson believes the city has to continue on the path it has taken to promote more industry.
“We are an exporting country, we need to find more ways to introduce manufacturing into our new lands that we’ve released from the agricultural land reserve … I’m committed to ensuring that our industrial infrastructure and support of agriculture continues to grow,” said Gibson.
Candidate Doris Woodman-McMillan said “the small business sector creates the majority of new jobs” and are invested in their community. “They use their own money to create their business.”
On the subject of public safety and policing, candidate Dave Derkson said the public has to take “personal responsibility” and looked more at the penal system, rather than policing.
“How does a Bacon family exist in our community and why? What happened? … We have to get the ones that offend rehabilitated and that doesn’t happen with our present system,” he said.
He believes a post-release program needs to be created to help offenders after they come out of jail. One that could “monitor” growth and change.
Incumbent Patricia Ross said the city needs to create a “culture of respect” and believes that starts with city council.
“I’m a huge fan of the restorative justice program … very few of the offenders who actually go through the program reoffend,” she said.
The Abbotsford police are doing “a great job” according to candidate Mark Rushton. He said great strides have been taken in battling gangs and reducing offences. He acknowledged policing is huge part of the city’s budget and may have to be looked at, but the need is still there.
“This is a large town, we are going to have crime. There’s no way we can avoid or eliminate it completely.”
He does want the city to advocate the federal and provincial governments to make the court system issue punishment that is sufficient to deter crime.
Aird Flavelle spoke about secondary suites in the city and their importance.
“Secondary suites provide a wonderful supply of affordable housing for our community,” he said
But he added they need to be highly controlled and regulated for parking issues.
Fellow council challenger Jati Sidhu agreed, calling then “mortgage helpers.” The former builder said he never used to finish a basement suite in a new home.
“Nowadays if you don’t have a basement suite in the house, it doesn’t sell.”
The 2011 civic election takes place on Nov. 19.