The Comox All Candidates Meeting took place Friday evening at the Comox Community Centre. All nine council candidates, as well as both mayoral candidates, participated in the event, hosted by Comox Tomorrow.
Russ Arnott and Tom Diamond are running for mayor.
Alex Bissinger, Don Davis, Ron Freeman, Ken Grant, Chris Haslett, Stephanie McGowan, Pat McKenna, Nicole Minions and Maureen Swift are running for the six council seats.
After introductions, candidates were presented with questions submitted from the floor.
The questions covered a variety of topics, ranging from affordable housing, to youth services.
The following is a recap of the evening.
(Mayoral candidate recaps appear first after every question, with recaps of the council candidate answers following.)
How will you create jobs and affordable housing to make Comox more attractive to young people?
Russ Arnott brought up the SAR Tech training centre that Comox was awarded last year, and the jobs that will provide; and reminded citizens of council’s streamlining of the process for approval of secondary suites in residences.
Tom Diamond said the Town needs to look at a long-term strategy, and that the process for things such as secondary suite approvals has to be further streamlined.
“We need a faster process to get new suites… Five months to get a permit is too long. And we need more than 89 rental units. We need hundreds.”
Alex Bissinger said the town must continue to make strides toward affordable housing.
In regards to job creation, Don Davis was straightforward.
““The number one thing I heard when I was a councillor is that there are not enough jobs for young people and I think I see some people here who have figured it out. You want a job? Pick up a hammer. Pick up a shovel and go to work like these guys. I don’t mean to disrespect anyone, but there is work out there if you want it.”
Ron Freemen believes council can do a better job of self-promotion. “All of us need to be ambassadors of Comox. We need to… talk to business owners out there and ask them to consider Comox.”
Ken Grant said the Town should focus on some of the land out near the airport, and develop that into an industrial area to create jobs, and said the affordable housing issue comes down to supply.
Chris Haslett concurred with Grant, regarding the development of an industrial area. He added working with developers to move the permits through more quickly will allow for more developments in the town, which would help with the affordable housing issue.
Stephanie McGowan said densification and diversification is key, and that the Town should be prepared, with land and plans, for the provincial and federal money that’s going to be available for affordable housing.
Pat McKenna, who is the executive director of Habitat for Humanity Vancouver Island North, said affordable housing is a key component of his campaign platform.
“Affordable housing is my middle name,” he said. “Partnerships, working with all levels of government, working with developers, encouraging them, to ensure that affordable housing is part of what they are doing, [understanding] that they have to make money as well. As they make money, those are big-paying jobs. We will all [benefit].”
Maureen Swift agreed with the development of the industrial area, and said the work being done by council regarding the streamlining of the application process for secondary suites is helping with the affordable housing issue.
Nicole Minions said there is a need for more multi-family housing developments, and an urgency to acknowledge the challenges that exist, and not just talk about it, but act on it.
Is the town of Comox getting fair value for what we pay in taxes?
Diamond said he has heard from a lot of citizins along his campaign trail who are concerned that they are not getting fair value for the taxes they pay.
“They see their taxes rising, year to year, and their services are not changing.”
Arnott brought up the point that there are numerous groups asking for a piece of the Comox tax pie and in that regard he is proud of how the Town has handled disbursement of funds.
“We’ve got 18 different hands out … all asking for our tax dollars. 2.3 per cent is not bad. We are on a stable rate. We are moving forward, and I think we can, next year, keep it under three per cent.”
All council candidates were in agreement that they believe the town of Comox is getting fair value for their taxes.
What steps would you support to improve and protect our air quality?
General consensus among council candidates was that the eventual phasing out of woodstoves would be helpful.
Diamond said restricting heating sources for new builds was “a great idea, but I don’t want to see the problems [of replacing woodstoves] put once again on the financial backs of … low income earners. If you can spend $150 a month on heat with a woodstove for heat, move to electric and that jumps to $650 for some folks. That’s way too much to force on regular earners.”
Arnott said he is committed to addressing the issue.
“Part of the problem is the particulate matter. When we do have an inversion, that pushes the smoke down, and that generally happens when it is chillier out. So what do we do about it? We banned backyard burning, 10-plus years ago. But part of the problem is, around us [in the rural areas], they are not doing what they need to do.”
Grant said the provincial grant money being offered for woodstove conversion could be better spent.
“We currently have a woodstove replacement program where we give about $75 if you [convert]. The grant from the province [has increased] to $40,000 from $20,000. That would allow us to go to the hotspots in our community and give a $1,500 rebate. That would replace 26 woodstoves, and that would start making a real difference in the air quality. The $75 rebate is just paying lip service.”
Stephanie McGowan suggested an initiative such as the bylaw in effect in Port Alberni , where upon a sale of a home, an uncertified wood stove has to be removed and replaced with a certified stove, or some other form of heating.
Swift suggested the open burn permits issued by the regional district are a major contributor.
“We [Comox] don’t have open burning, but 400-500 open burn permits are issued just outside our boundaries.”
Alex Bissinger said in order to meet the 2050, 80 per cent greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, energy use will also have to be reduced by 50 per cent.
“So let’s look at transit. The OCP says that over three quarters of the homes should be within 300 metres of a bus stop, so let’s make sure that the transit routes respect that… solar panels… alternative energy. Look at the tree canopy [numbers] and maintain that 50 per cent or more in Comox.”
Are you pleased with, or do you have concerns with the way Comox is handling growth?
Arnott said Comox is constrained by the RGS and the agricultural land reserve (ALR), but progress is being made, particularly around the airport area.
“We can’t continue to grow out, but we talk about balanced growth, and the example of balanced growth is the Northeast Comox Stormwater Management Plan. That’s a piece of land over towards the roundabout by the airport. This is a leading edge technology that has just been approved… this will take all of your rooftop water and put it back into the aquifer. We are going to hold onto the trees that we have … we are doing well with that.”
Diamond said more can be done and Comox is lagging behind other Valley communities.
“If you look at Cumberland, how far they have come, how quickly their downtown has become vibrant… we’ve got a few places coming up, and that’s great… but it’s too slow. We’ve had developers who have turned around and left, moved to Campbell River, Cumberland, Nanaimo, because our development is too slow, too much red tape. We need to fix that.”
Freemen said more could be done. Grant said the Official Community Plan (OCP) and Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) address and dictate growth, but is happy with how it is proceeding.
Chriss Haslett likes the direction the Town is heading in.
“I do feel that we are trending in the right direction as far as growth is [concerned]. We are obviously in need of more development as more people are moving into the town and I feel that is being addressed – maybe not as quickly as it can, but it is being addressed.”
Minions said not enough is being done in regards to affordable housing.
“We haven’t done enough strategic thinking on how we can collaborate with partners… and really champion the issue of affordable housing. There’s more that can be done. We can fast-track [the permit approval process] for developments that work for our community.”
Are you in favour of amalgamation?
There was a resounding ‘no’ to this question, although most candidates said an expansion in shared services would be something to consider.
“Comox is in a very enviable position, being in a debt-free state,” McGowan said, echoing the sentiments of the entire panel. “Comox residents voted 78 per cent ‘no’ [in a previous referendum]… but I am definitely in favour of sharing our services, partnering our services like we do with the pools and ice rinks. One thing about amalgamating is Comox has a volunteer fire service and [with amalgamation] we would need to pay the firefighters, which would be a … massive tax implication.”
What strategy do you support to provide better services to youth in our community?
The panel all agreed more must be done in this regard.
If elected what measures will you take to preserve and protect historically significant heritage sites in the town of Comox?
This question quickly turned into a discussion about the Mack Laing saga, and everyone agreed that the town and the Mack Laing society must work toward resolution.