The campaign signs are everywhere — along roadways and on people’s lawns. There are ads in the newspaper and my Facebook feed is filled with election-related posts. Outgoing councillor Tony Scarcella is calling this Saturday’s election the most important in a decade and one that will define Revelstoke for the next century.
That’s a bold statement. Will it help get people out to vote? In 2011, only 36 per cent of Revelstokians voted – a pathetic amount, though perhaps somewhat impacted by the lack of a mayoral election.
This year has seen a politically charged campaign. It’s seen our mayors of the past 12 years – incumbent David Raven and his predecessor Mark McKee – go up against each other, with a third candidate, the previously unknown Michael Brooks-Hill as the alternate choice.
What’s interesting is that McKee and Raven used to be good friends. When Raven ran for mayor in 2008, he was regarded as McKee’s hand-picked successor — the BC Liberal candidate of choice to sit in the mayor’s seat.
I don’t know what happened between the two to trigger their split, but it’s clear they don’t care for each other. Raven has been campaigning as the man who’s slowly and quietly been trying to put Revelstoke on a stable financial footing, while maintaining a balanced economy. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a competent manager or a cold bureaucrat who hasn’t had to scramble for a dollar in his life and has no idea what it’s like to run a business.
For McKee, the last six years has seen city finances reach a precipice, while city hall has been closed off and development driven away. McKee is either the successful business man who brought in Revelstoke Mountain Resort and the boom that came with it, or he’s the mayor who failed to act as many families were driven out of Revelstoke by sky-rocketing housing costs.
Then you have Brooks-Hill — the unknown who has put together a strong campaign, showing an awareness of the issues and putting forwarded some good ideas. As he puts it, he’s the true candidate for change — the city’s problems being the result of the previous 12 years when his competitors were in charge. Still, his complete lack of leadership experience is a definite knock against him.
Revelstoke does face challenges. The financial situation, while perhaps improving, has been getting steadily worse over the past 12 years. That can be seen by reading Graham Inglis’ annual financial performance reports. Twelve years ago, they were pretty sunny. They’ve slowly grown more ominous, warning of increasing debt and declining reserves.
The city’s debt was about $6.3 million in 2002 and climbed to $13.1 million in 2008 and $17.9 million last year. The debt is largely a result of big infrastructure projects like the water treatment plant, new police station, aquatic centre, and various sewer projects. Still, it’s also a result of lack of reserves. When infrastructure funding came forward in 2009, the city had to borrow substantial sums in order to match the available money. It has also borrowed for things like road repairs and a new fire truck — capital spending that should have not required borrowing with proper planning.
City taxes on the average home have doubled since 2002, and utility rates (water, sewer and garbage) have also increased, though not nearly as much.
The economy is doing well and Revelstoke has recovered from the Great Recession. Statistics proving as much are limited, but business licenses are at an all-time high, storefronts are filling up (the 100 block of East Second Street, which has been mostly vacant since I moved to Revelstoke is showing signs of life with two new businesses and a new tenant about to take over Benoit’s), Downie Timber is expanding, and hotel tax revenue has increased every year since 2008.
Despite that, we still hear of an unfriendly business environment at city hall — with high taxes and burdensome development applications acting as a drag on the economy. Before the election campaign started I spoke to Judy Goodman, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, about economic issues. Taxes, particularly the ratio between business and residential taxes is still a problem. The development environment has improved and she had kind words for Dean Strachan, the manager of development services, in this regard.
One of the big issues she raised was the struggle of businesses, particularly those in service and retail, to attract and retain employees. This comes down to affordability — those jobs don’t pay well enough and the cost of living in Revelstoke is high.
Lots of decisions the next council makes can affect affordability. Encouraging housing construction can lead to more rental units being available, thereby reducing the cost of rent. Reducing business taxes – either by lowering taxes or fostering growth – will help make businesses more successful, which, in a perfect world, will allow them to pay their employees more. Business owners should realize it’s in their best interest to pay a living wage, which in Revelstoke is considered to be about $17 per hour.
Over the last five weeks, we’ve allowed the candidates space in the newspaper to advocate their positions on certain issues and for the most part, the messages from the candidates are similar, though the tones are different. The candidates recognize the issues — how they approach them is the main difference.
How important is this election? Will it set the tone for the next century, as Scarcella said. I wouldn’t go that far. Every election is important, but the issues facing Revelstoke aren’t intractable. There’s no single imposing issue, like a referendum on a new pool, or an impending development that will change the face of the community like the resort.
I won’t advocate for any one candidate, or any slate. A good balance at the council table will be key. You want a group of people that recognize Revelstoke’s problems, but also represents the diversity of the community.
Here’s hoping for a strong voter turnout this Saturday, November 15.