The incoming mayor in Prince Edward County will have a lot on their plate and there were some tough issues asked at the mayoral debate on Wednesday night.
The Regent Theatre was filled nearly to capacity at the debate hosted by the Prince Edward County Chamber of Commerce and the Prince Edward Federation of Agriculture to hear from Steve Ferguson, Dianne O’Brien and Richard Whiten..
Topics discussed ranged from the farm tax ratio, councillor salary increases, infrastructure needs, affordable housing and environmental protections for the county.
While all three candidates agreed there are some very critical issues facing the county at this time, they for the most part had differing ideas as to how to tackle them.
The night began with a roads quality question.
Ferguson told the crowd roads offer an ongoing challenge as there are 1,100 kms of them and the tourists have had a profound effect on them.
O’Brien said it is up to the county to lobby the provincial and federal government to invest in rural communities such as theirs, while offering the suggestion of putting together a committee to help come up with new ideas.
Political newcomer Whiten says it is a struggle to fix the roads and the current bandaid solutions aren’t working. He admitted road repairs cost a lot of money and the tax base can’t support it.
The candidates were asked if they would support holding the farm tax ratio tax rate at the 2018 rate.
All three agreed farmers are vital to the community. Whiten said he would reduce their burden, O’Brien stated she wouldn’t close her mind to the idea and Ferguson said the new and young farmers program can be refined.
Another farming topic that came up and had to do with load restrictions in the county. Candidates were asked if they would remove the load restrictions.
Ferguson said he would for the sake of farmers as it is owed to them.
O’Brien agreed saying it was not just a business concern.
Whiten was the dissenter saying he would keep the load restrictions in place until the quality and condition of the roads could be properly maintained.
A hot topic as of late in the county has been affordable housing and it was brought up early in the night.
O’Brien called it a crisis and said she wants to bring the right people to the table to address the issue as well as looking at surplus land to be donated to Habitat for Humanity.
Ferguson says the gravity of this issue isn’t lost on anyone and he wants to sit down with developers to tackle the issue as it needs to be handled in a very specific way.
Whiten said a combination of several solutions will need to be found in order to help them solve the issue.
They were, later in the night, asked if they would be willing to have the county undertake debt to build attainable/affordable housing.
Ferguson said he wants to set up a not-for-profit housing corporation to help make the affordable housing project a reality.
O’Brien said she is open to suggestions and would support anything that has the evidence to support that it is the solution to produce what they need.
Whiten said he’d be open to it as this will be an issue for years to come and the county needs to invest in itself.
Mayoral candidates were then asked about the retention of employees in the county.
Whiten said the lack of attainable housing played a large role in people not keeping jobs in Prince Edward County and said there wasn’t enough work in the trades and in town.
O’Brien wants to consult with the businesses themselves and the right people in other municipalities to come up with some solutions.
Ferguson said getting high speed internet is one of the pieces that needs to be in place in Prince Edward County as it is becoming crucial to the workforce.
A question was asked regarding The Emily Project and if the three mayoral hopefuls supported the idea of vacant farmland having civic numbers for identification purposes for emergency services.
All three agreed it is critically important to have such a program in place to prevent another tragedy.
O’Brien said they could look into giving subsidies to farmers who do get civic numbers for their vacant farmland.
Ferguson suggested the county absorb the cost of the signage for the land.
Whiten said there should be a program in place.
Environmental protection was brought up and the candidates were asked what initiatives they would bring forward if elected to deal with some of the issues they have faced and are facing.
O’Brien said they can always do better and she would like to consult with Chief R. Don Maracle for his perspective and point of view.
Whiten wants to have a group dedicated to protecting the environment as well as getting industry on board with better protecting the area.
Ferguson said they need to deal with all levels of government on this issue and would like to see an environmental advisory committee brought forward as well as reviving the water commission.
Water infrastructure was brought up as it is a front burner issue, especially in the community of Wellington.
Whiten said Wellington needs the upgrades and it is going to cost the municipality and they will have to manage that as they can’t afford cost increases.
O’Brien she wants a water commission established while also stating Belleville soaks the county for water and wants to see if that can be reduced. She also agreed the water issue in Wellington is a crisis that needs to be addressed and a water tower may be the way to go.
Ferguson said a water commission is a good start and he wants to work with developers to come up with a plan so they are being pro-active instead of reacting to issues.
They were asked how they would improve communication at all levels.
Ferguson said there needs to be more outgoing communication and suggested a service people can subscribe to.
O’Brien suggested reaching out to people through the schools as well as moving meeting times so the public can attend. She also said she would spend a couple of hours a week in each of the hamlets in the county to talk to people.
Whiten said he’d use social media as well as making the website more user friendly. He also suggested holding meetings in the areas most affected by the issues.
The website was also a topic of discussion and all three candidates agreed, as well as the audience, that the website needs work as it was described as not being user friendly and frustrating to navigate.
The three were asked what skills they bring to the table that would help get council through the next four years.
Ferguson cited his experience running large and small corporations as well as working as part of a team. He said council needs to look at the businesses and residents as customers and they need to do their best to keep them happy.
O’Brien says she has the ability to lead with a strong voice and leadership skills and the ability to have a strong united council.
Whiten said he wants to build on people’s strengths. He sees the residents of the county as his neighbours and says he protects and stands up for his neighbour.
Candidates were asked if they would support a raise in wages for councillors as the current salary doesn’t match the time spent filling their roles.
Whiten said he would agree to an increase but not to a living standard until the job becomes a full-time role.
O’Brien said no to the increase because it is not a job, people don’t seek a position on council for the money, they do it to leave the county a better place than when they started.
Ferguson agreed a wage increase would be appropriate because they do spend a lot of time listening to their constituents needs and concerns. He wants an independent salary review done to make sure they are competitive with area council salaries.
In closing, Whiten told the crowd the county is dealing with a number of critical issues and they need action and he is someone who gets things done.
He stated the public’s insight is invaluable in helping council effectively do their jobs.
O’Brien cited her 12 years of first hand experience and said she knows the issues from one corner of the county to the other.
She said she wants to help small businesses thrive as they are the lifeblood of a healthy community.
She said she has a good relationship with those at the provincial and federal levels and she wants to be the one to help the county transition from a small rural community to an internationally acclaimed destination.
Ferguson stated he was knowledgeable and experienced and he wants to implement the best solutions right the first time so they are sustainable in the years to come.
He said there are many tough and frightening challenges facing the county, and their tourism success has brought issues forward they didn’t account for.
He told the crowd change can’t wait and the county needs leadership and opportunities to seize.
Election day is October 22.