Density and taxes were on voters’ minds Tuesday night at the Ward 7 election forum at the Mount Pleasant Community Association.
Incumbent Druh Farrell was challenged all night long by her opponents, Dean Brawn, Marek Hejduk, Brent Alexander and Margot Aftergood, who are all vying to take the city council seat she has held since 2001.
The forum covered a number of topics, including traffic and safety, a new arena and the arts. But one theme dominated the discussion: high density developments, taxes and the relationship between the two.
Though every candidate agreed there needs to be a certain level of cooperation between communities and developers, the debate seemed to be largely four against one on the topic of density and development.
While Farrell was adamant that higher density development is more efficient and costs less, the other four candidates emphasized the need to stick to the Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) set out by the city.
“If it’s not zoned for it, you can’t build it unless the community overwhelmingly decides to change the zoning,” said Brawn, adding that the city needs clearer policy surrounding zoning and development.
Farrell countered, among the benefits, higher density developments contribute to lowering taxes.
“You want to talk about taxes, you have to talk about building a more efficient city, a more compact city, because there’s nothing more expensive than sprawl,” she said. “But we have to get it right. We have to make sure that new developments fit into the community.”
Farrell went on to add that quality is one of the city’s main concerns and when a development does not meet the requirements, it is sent back to the drawing board. She went on to reference the laneway houses that missed the mark on design and quality. In 2016, Farrell made a motion in council to redesign the building guidelines to ensure quality for these small, backyard homes.
However, Alexander countered, saying the city doesn’t need to spend time on new guidelines, they instead need to commit to the plans that are already in place.
“We don’t need new guidelines, we need to respect the ones we have,” Alexander said. “What good are new guidelines if all we’re going to do is ignore them as well?”
Aftergood also disagreed with Farrell, saying that new high density developments are causing residents to see a decrease in the value of their homes. Hejduk sided against high density development as well, saying that this type of development increases taxes and mainly benefits the developers.
In terms of spending, each candidate had their own ideas for reducing taxes.
Brawn spoke first, saying the city needs to start by looking at their own employees’ salaries and pensions.
“One of the first things I would do would be to accept the recommendations of the HR committee that recommended that city council reduce their paychecks,” he said.
Aftergood agreed, saying that city employee pensions need to be either cut or changed.
According to Hejduk, within the city’s $3.6-billion budget, 60 per cent goes to staffing costs. He said there are many areas within city staff that could be trimmed to cut costs.
For Alexander, the problem lies in the relationship between tax increases and population growth.
“In the last seven years, we’ve been asked to increase our taxes by 52 per cent even though that’s way higher than inflation and population growth,” he said, adding that he is committed to not letting tax increases surpass inflation and population growth.
Farrell, on the other hand, again spoke about the high cost of urban sprawl, adding that the 30 per cent vacancy rate of our downtown high rises has been very hard on the city. Farrell said we need to make up for this income loss in other areas that are taking up a significant portion of the city’s budget.
“If you look at police, fire, transportation and transit, that’s 74 per cent of our operating budget,” she said. “You have to cut those areas.”
She adds that the city needs to make these services more efficient to decrease costs and at times like these, there is a constant battle between taxes and delivering services.
With two close front-runners, Ward 7 is a tight race. According to a recent poll by Common Sense Calgary, a conservative interest group, Farrell is currently leading only three points ahead of Alexander. Brawn is sitting third in the poll, followed by Aftergood and Hejduk. In Ward 7, nearly 20 per cent of those polled were still undecided.
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