Belleville’s mayoral candidates went head-to-head again, in another mayoral debate on Wednesday. this time with business-centric questions from the Belleville Chamber of Commerce, in front of a near capacity crowd at Empire Theatre.
All four candidates got good response from the audience, as they answered questions on improving conditions for trades people, increasing the city’s revenue to pay off infrastructure debt, improving safety downtown and retaining international students from Loyalist, among others.
Candidates were also asked individual questions, with no chance for rebuttal about road safety, cannabis use, changes to the procurement process and more.
During closing statements, Mitch Panciuk noted that the biggest choice voters have is “if they want change” and “want something better than a one-man show”.
Jodie Jenkins also promoted the need for change and says if he’s elected “transparency will be key” and he’ll look for new approaches to solve old issues.
Egerton Boyce told the crowd that he ran a minimalist campaign because “all the money in the world can’t buy you integrity” and noted how hard he’s worked for residents since being elected to council in 2003.
Taso Christopher touted the numerous infrastructure and other projects that have been completed under his leadership and touted the jewel of his platform moving forward, of developing the waterfront.
Here’s a round up of some of the questions and answers from Wednesday’s debate:
Addressing the need for skilled tradespeople
The question noted the success of the city’s doctor recruitment initiative, but asked how to attract another much-needed career group to the city.
Jenkins said that building the relationship with Loyalist College was key, especially with the investments made there in the college’s Skilled Trades Centre and says “the last four years of conflict on council have affected that relationship in a negative way.”
Christopher touted the success of the doctor recruitment program and did acknowledge the need for more skilled tradespeople but didn’t have a concrete solution.
Panciuk also agreed that the Skilled Trades and Technology Centre at Loyalist was a key to addressing the issue, but says “we need to find a way to attract more people and get them in there.”
Boyce had a different solution, proposing the need for a skilled trades specific college, as some other municipalities have saying “Loyalist isn’t the be all and end all.” He says council should think outside the box and look into an idea like that.
Raising revenue to pay off infrastructure debt
Christopher says a key to making back some of the money spent on the much-needed infrastructure upgrades downtown, is to improve the waterfront. He says “if you invest in infrastructure and the waterfront, you’ll reap the benefits tenfold.”
Jenkins told the crowd that “we need to pay attention to the things that lead to growth,” addressing issues like access to water and sewer in areas of the city that are developing. He says “increased growth leads to higher revenue and lower taxes.”
Boyce agreed that growth does lead to revenue, but the key to growth is quality of life. He says “Nobody will come here if we don’t have the right amenities.” He also suggested waiving development fees for businesses, as has been done in the past.
Panciuk also agreed that commercial and housing development creates the best method for paying things off, but says that “we can’t continue to use borrowed money to fund infrastructure projects moving forward.” He says we need to use land the city has currently, like the fairgrounds, for more development.
Concerns with downtown safety and safety around the city in general
Panciuk says that “if you compare our downtown with others, it’s safe, but some people don’t feel that way.” He says the key to addressing that issue is to increase business and social activity. He also feels that beautifying the downtown, making it more of an “arts and culture hub” and bringing more people there, will ease the safety concerns.
Boyce feels that the biggest safety issue in the city isn’t the downtown, it’s on our roads. He says that the city needs to continue to look at various traffic calming measures, to slow drivers down and there also needs to be a continuation of ongoing bike safety initiatives.
Jenkins called the question subjective and says there are some negative aspects to the downtown. He says getting rid of safety concerns comes with improving the downtown and getting more people there. He says one way to do that is address parking, suggesting the Riverfront Lot should be free and parking on Front Street should be metered. He also suggested scrapping the BDIA.
Christopher, however, says “the BDIA is doing a phenomenal job” and pointed to the work of the Belleville Police Service in keeping residents safe city-wide. In the downtown specifically, he says the police force has increased foot patrols by 150 hours and that the BPS has initiated a number of other programs to reach its mandate of making Belleville the safest city in Ontario.
Retaining international students from Loyalist College post-graduation
Boyce told the crowd that transit is one easy key to helping with that, but also pointed to his work on the city’s Inclusion Committee. He says “we need to continue to offer a warm and welcoming approach to new residents” to make sure they want to stay.
Panciuk says that city council hasn’t met collectively with the college in four years and thinks there needs to be more collaboration between City Hall and Loyalist. He also agreed on the need for improvements to transit and pointed again to having a vibrant downtown, which will “attract more young people and people from all over the world”.
Christopher says immigration is dear to his heart, as his parents moved from another country to Belleville and started two successful businesses. He says “we need to appreciate that immigration builds our country” and that “Loyalist is a world class college and they are doing a great job bringing international students.”
Jenkins says “it would be nice to think that all international students would fall in love with the city and want to stay here” but says that won’t happen without change. He says we need to build better relationships with the college and let international students know what opportunities are available to them.
Increasing public input
The question noted that only 17% of Chamber of Commerce members were aware that the city asks for feedback on items that are proposed to council and asked how candidates would increase public input.
Jenkins says the city needs to do a better job at communicating and that council needs to “actively portray that it wants feedback.” He says “the reality is, over the last four years, the image of pettiness, conflict and turmoil has been standard” and pointed to two of the candidates on stage as the reason for that.
Boyce says he found the 17% number disappointing. He says it comes down to communication and that he would work with the chamber to find out how to best improve that number. He also noted the city has hired a communications coordinator to help get the message out to the public.
Panciuk says the statistic speaks to the fact that there is a disconnect between residents, council and the mayor’s office. He says he hears all the time that people don’t hear back from council members they try to contact and that “accessibility is key”.
Christopher says it comes down to the relationship between City Hall and the chamber and that “we can always do a better job.” He says there needs to be two-way communication and that everyone needs to be fully engaged and aware of what’s going on.
Moving the city forward and what issue needs the most attention?
Christopher says they’ve already taken a different approach by investing in infrastructure that has already shown positive results. He says “our council did some bold things that other municipalities wouldn’t have done and we did it all without increasing taxes more than the cost of living.” He says “if the chamber feels we need to do things differently, they need to communicate that.”
Panciuk answered back to criticism that he is hard to get along with and argues with others on council. He says “I think some people confuse standing up in debate or on principles as nitpicking”, but that conversation needs to happen. He says the process to move forward “has been shut down and people haven’t been able to speak”.
Boyce says “we need to listen” and that communication is key. He says he would demand that council meet with the chamber on a regular basis so they know what’s going on and there’s no issue about them not being heard.
Jenkins says we need to look at the way we deal with economic development. He says “the days of big factories are gone and we need to look more and talk about more in the innovation sector”, that “downtown could be come an industrial park” with the right kinds of businesses.
Ensuring the city gets value for its development projects, keeps costs/timelines in line
Panciuk thinks there needs to be a more realistic planning process and that staff need to be more accountable in forecasting prices. He also suggests reviewing the purchasing policy, procurement and tendering processes. He says “we’ve heard stories of Belleville being a difficult municipality to deal with and we need to change that.”
Christopher says “sometimes its unfortunate that projects get delayed”. He says “we’re a victim of provincial standards” and that environment assessments tend to hold things back, sometimes up to two years. He says things get delayed when you have more than a few projects on the go at the same time.
Jenkins agreed that the MOE process can slow things down and that “some things are out of the city’s control”. But he says attention to detail is key and that cost projections and timelines need to be more realistic.
Boyce says he gets frustrated by the cost overruns as well. He says he’s not going to make excuses about costs going up and that council has made the CAO aware of the fact that the purchasing policy and cost estimate calculations have to be reviewed. But he says “we’re also a victim of too many projects and not enough resources to do them.”
How would you develop the waterfront to provide more revenue through private investment
Boyce says it’s crucial to have a waterfront master plan, which is underway. He says the best opportunity for the city is combination use. Getting the needed infrastructure upgrades to make Zwick’s Park viable and sustainable, but also mixing in residential and commercial uses by the waterfront. He also notes that Meyers Pier has been neglected and “we need to address what we’ve already got before we start investing more”.
Jenkins says “we’re fortunate to be so close to an amazing body of water” but says it would be irresponsible to speculate on what it could look like. He says it’s a matter of taking it to the public and seeing what their vision is, having a robust conversation with council and discussing how to pay for it.
Christopher noted again that waterfront development is one of the keys of his platform for 2019 and beyond. He says “it’s the number one under-utilized asset we have.” He says the city can just continue to take care of the land, or turn it into opportunities for economic growth, tourism and residential opportunities.
Panciuk says one of the biggest concerns he hears is that there is too much being done on the backs of the taxpayers. He called Zwick’s Park “embarassing” with the state of its washroom facilities and says that needs to happen immediately. He also says waterfront parking needs to be addressed, especially in the downtown, noting “the riverside should be for people, not for cars”. He says that means looking at a parking structure project and using public-private funding.
Panciuk told the crowd that the differences between the four candidates were likely becoming pretty clear. He says the biggest choice voters have is “do you want change, do you want something better than a one man show?” He asked the audience to envision a Belleville that has more green space, expanded trail system, a town bursting with arts and culture, a city that looks after its most vulnerable and has affordable housing and good jobs for all.
Jenkins says he didn’t make the decision to run lightly and that he’s passionate about public service. He says he cares deeply about the long-term health of the city and that under his leadership there will be a different approach to handling challenges. He says we need a new approach to economic development, a frank discussion on the BDIA, to improve the downtown and to find ways to ease the tax burden.
Boyce noted his lack of political advertising saying “I don’t believe all the money in the world can buy you integrity.” He says he’s heard that voters are tired of personality clashes and that while he may not be the best speaker, he does have integrity, work hard behind the scenes and can relate to the electorate. He says since being elected in 2003 he’s shown that he can check his ego at the door, admit when he’s wrong and will make decisions based on what’s best for the city.
Christopher asked the audience “what if we didn’t complete Build Belleville, or water/sewer and road upgrades, or new bridges, parks and pools?” “What if we didn’t complete our new fire halls, or upgrades to the Quinte Sports and Wellness Centre, or have doctor recruitment?” He says the key in the October 22 vote is to stay the course with what’s been working. He pushed again for the need to redevelop the waterfront, bring in more tourism, economic development, investment and regional transit to help the city grow.
Once more, if you’d like to learn more about the four candidates running for Mayor of Belleville, you can click here to read our mayoral profiles.