Taxes, housing, arts and parking topped the docket as Tofino’s candidates for mayor and council faced a packed house at the Community Hall on Tuesday night and made their pitch to lead the community for the next four years.
Residents will vote in an Oct. 10 Advanced Voting Day and an Oct. 20 General Voting Day.
Tofino has 12 candidates for its six council seats: Al Anderson, Stephen Ashton, Dorothy Baert, Jason Brown, Britt Chalmers, Craig Heber, Chris Heisterman, Stephanie Hughes, Eric Kingsley, Duncan McMaster, Andrea McQuade and Tom Stere. Three candidates are running for mayor: Josie Osborne, Omar Soliman and Jarmo Venalainen.
Tuesday’s event was moderated by Jen Dart and Mathieu Amin of the Tofino Long Beach Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber had circulated two questions to the candidates prior to the event and those were asked first, with the incumbent candidates answering one and the non-incumbents the other. Each candidate had two minutes to deliver their response.
Sewage Treatment tax-hike
Incumbents were asked about taxation in light of the town’s proposed wastewater treatment plant that’s expected to cost local taxpayers around $15 million in capital costs and roughly $612,000 annual operating cost and how they believed that financial stress on businesses and residents could be eased.
Al Anderson was the first to respond and said there were no easy answers.
“It’s the question I hoped I didn’t get,” he joked.
He said the district has hired engineers who have looked at the project and believes it is the best path forward, but added that the district should lobby for more provincial and federal funding to lower the capital cost to the district.
“We also have to be as creative as we can in looking at any sort of funding, even if we can derive funding from cannabis stores I’m willing to look at it,” he said.
Dorothy Baert agreed and said the capital cost should be funded entirely by higher levels of government.
“We have a serious situation here, which is the excessively expensive cost which is, I think, untenable for a community of 2,000 or even 3,000 people,” she said.
She added that the facility is being built for 15,000 people, which she believed represents an extreme burden on resident taxpayers.
“As we will be paying the operating costs, it’s my view that higher levels of government should be paying for the construction…It is my intention to lobby in every possible way for 100 per cent of the capital cost funding.”
She said she would propose a 1 per cent tourism tax on activities and services in town, if she received the community’s support for the idea.
“I’m confident that our surf shops, charter companies, kayaking businesses, want to be part of the solution and by collecting a small tax, that’s dedicated to infrastructure, we can allocate costs more accurately to their source, the visitor.”
Duncan McMaster said borrowing $16 million will exhaust the town’s borrowing power and be an excessive burden on the taxpayer. He noted that Parks Canada and the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation would be helping to fund a portion of the cost, though the amount they’ll offer is not yet known.
He said Tofino should lobby the provincial government for more flexibility in spending the additional hotel room tax dollars, which are currently largely allocated towards marketing Tofino to visitors.
“I think we also have to look at revenue in the town. We have to update all our local licence fees, bylaw fines and grants, some of which have not changed in 30 years or more,” he said.
He added the sewer charge to businesses, especially hotels, should be looked at and possibly increased.
Josie Osborne said the project would need to be handled responsibly.
“It is absolutely incumbent on us to procure and manage this project with excellence because we don’t need a Johnson Street fiasco like has been had in Victoria,” she said. “Every penny matters and this project requires the highest standards of fiscal and project management.”
She said the province created a tool to promote tourism through the MRDT and now must create a tool for communities to pay for the costs associated with increased tourism.
“This past council has been making a very strong case to the province about how property taxpayers unfairly subsidize the tourism sector by supplying far more than our fair share of municipal infrastructure costs,” she said.
The chamber’s second question was directed to the new candidates in the race and asked what they feel the municipality should do to ease parking congestion in Tofino’s downtown core during the summer and shoulder seasons.
Stephanie Hughes said the issue has been a longstanding strain on Tofino and suggested creating a parking pass for residents and implementing a parking fee for non-residents.
She suggested the money collected from the fee could be used to launch a delivery service that would deliver groceries to residents who ride their bike instead of drive.
“It would be a great opportunity for a small business or entrepreneur to start this,” she said.
Britt Chalmers suggested creating residents’-only parking spots connected to annual parking passes and added that the community’s public transportation system should be enhanced.
“The Free Shuttle has been a great bonus to the town and, I think, charging fees to run a bus service that comes more frequently, could help encourage more people to use it and decrease the congestion in the [downtown] core,” she said. “We do not have room to create more parking, so the focus should be on how we move around this town.”
She suggested programs like bike-shares and Park and Rides for RV’s to park around industrial way could help create more room to park downtown.
Chris Heisterman said guests should be educated on where they can park when they’re visiting Tofino and that an increased taxi service or ride-share opportunities should be looked at.
“The shuttle service in the summer months has been really great, but its biggest flaw is its infrequency and, personally, I think it’s a worthy investment to make that more frequent,” he said. “Not only would more more people use it, it actually changes the culture as to which people approach transit and getting around town.”
He added that the shuttle should not be free and suggested a $2 charge.
Andrea McQuade said Tofino’s limited parking capacity quickly gets gobbled up by visitors and that introducing a pay parking pass system could offset parking frustrations if the funds being generated were going towards needed community projects.
“In my opinion, this is just another way to bridge the gap between our tourism community and our resident community in a way that feels more like service and less like sacrifice,” she said. “I’m willing to circle the block a few more times in the summer if I know that all the tourist parking passes I see around the way are going towards lighting up the Multi-Use Path and keeping our residents safe.”
Eric Kingsley said the town’s parking congestion is a symptom of a combination of causes, including the “overpowering tourism industry,” the fact that there is one road into town and downtown businesses need deliveries.
He mentioned a parking lot or garage and enhanced pay-parking system as possible solutions and added that local resorts could help by offering shuttles for their guests.
“Encouraging resorts and B and B’s to develop shuttle programs that run more often and more effectively would be a great way to get people past driving to the resort and driving their car also to town,” he said.
Stephen Ashton said the town’s parking congestion is an indication of success.
“There’s a lot of small towns on Vancouver Island that would dream of having a parking problem. If you run a restaurant and all of your tables are full and there’s a lineup out the door you’re going, ‘Wow this is great. This is something good,” he said.
He spoke against the current time-limits on downtown parking spots and said the limits send the wrong message to visitors who should be encouraged to get out of their cars and wander around town, shop, go to restaurants or on whale watching trips.
“It’s not the right message that we’re sending to the people that are coming here for the Tofino time, the relaxed way of living and getting away from the big city,” he said adding that visitors should be sent emails prior to their visit that lay out alternative ways of getting around town, like trails.
He also supported a resident parking pass.
“A local getting a ticket is just a real shame. I think we’re losing our small town values every single time a local gets a ticket,” he said.
Tom Stere said “there is no silver bullet” to solving the community’s parking concerns.
“I’ll tell you, if you ever want to start a discussion in the produce aisle of the Co-op just mention parking in the summer,” he said. “It is definitely an issue of volume, there’s no question about that.”
He noted the district office is currently working on a transportation plan to reduce the parking challenges in towns.
“I would encourage everybody, locals who have very positive solutions to come forward with that,” he said. “Make those solutions accessible to staff so that they can bring them forward to the next council who will be hopefully enacting those solutions proactively.”
Craig Heber said Tofino has lost parking to landscaping development projects and that “there is no easy way to fix” the problem.
“Public transportation and a park and ride from industrial way for RV’s is really the only possible solution, because those cars are coming in,” he said.
He said he rode the summer shuttle to work during the summer and that there is more than enough demand to make that service more frequent.
Jarmo Venalianen suggested the district has created its parking problem through mismanagement, suggesting the district’s parking in lieu program has failed to create the parking its intended to create and not requiring restaurants to offer enough parking to their customers.
“Going forward, it’s really simple. You need to build a parking lot; you need to build a parkade,” he said. “I would look at where we have property to build a parking lot.”
He suggested his wife’s hometown in Finland created a parkade under its Village Green.
“What they decided to do was rip up the Village Green, dig it up, build a parkade, cover it up and make it a Village Green, they have a few hundred parking places right in the middle of town,” he said.
Jason Brown said parking metres on Campbell Street and maintaining all current spots.
“As good as bike lanes are, putting a bike lane down Gibson when that’s a bunch of parking spaces right there, you’re taking away parking,” he said.
He also liked the idea of enhancing the shuttle service and charging a fee.
“People would be happy to pay for it if it’s running more frequently and that would be extra revenue to take care of infrastructure,” he said.
Omar Soliman said he loved the idea of a residents’ parking pass and suggested a key way to help congestion would be to alter Tofino’s traffic direction coming into town.
“I like to call it the poseidon effect. Once you get to Fourth Street, instead of having it go just one way, we split it up into three roads and that causes a jam throughout town,” he said. “What we need to do is from Fourth to First street create a one-way street through Campbell.”
He said no construction work would be needed to make the change and that it would allow for a two-way bike path on one side of the road with room for slant-parking on the other side.
“There would be no more jams,” he said.
Arts, culture and heritage
The first resident to raise a question from the audience was Maureen Fraser who asked the candidates whether they believe arts culture and heritage is important to Tofino and how they would support it.
The three candidates randomly selected to answer the question, Jason Brown, Britt Chalmers and Stephen Ashton, all spoke in favour of support.
Jason Brown said synergy could be found with recreation pursuits through a community centre.
“A good community centre is essential to a prosperous community,” he said adding a pool and new library would create places for people to gather.
“I think, on council, it would be important to try to direct as much revenue and grants towards making that kind of stuff happen,” he said.
Britt Chalmers said one of her favourite things about Tofino is the number of festivals and events.
“It’s part of what makes this community so special and so united as well as it adds to the experience of all the tourists,” she said adding she would support those pursuits.
Stephen Ashton said the non profit organizations and volunteers that put events together need to be supported.
“A community that doesn’t have strong arts and culture is a community that doesn’t have a soul,” he said. “All of the events that go on here really, really, make this place an incredibly rich place to live. We have long winters and being able to come together as a community through the events is one of the best things that we have.”
The second question posed from the audience came from a youth who asked what the candidates would do to protect wild salmon in the region.
Dorothy Baert pointed to the “phenomenal work” of the Salmon Enhancement Society.
“We need wild salmon. We need to protect the environment and do whatever we can to make sure that this is not only just a resource, but it is part of the life of this place that’s here for generations to come.”
Duncan McMaster said a popular topic within the wild salmon issue is salmon farming, which falls largely outside council’s jurisdiction.
“We can put pressure on the provincial government from a municipal level that we’re not in support of fish farms, but they are a major employer in this town and we musn’t forget that,” he said.
He added the Salmon Enhancement Society does a “great job with very little funding” and that council must lobby for more funding.
“The returns are down, so I really fear what’s going to happen,” he said. “Having seen what’s happened in Newfoundland, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bit of a moratorium on sportfishing coming down the road.”
Tom Stere said groups working on salmon restoration must be supported.
“We know that with education comes awareness so that, I think, is an important aspect to this issue,” he said. “Supporting the community groups locally is something that as a municipal council we can do, which would help them to accomplish the goals that would be needed to enhance our wild salmon populations.”
Outgoing councillor Cathy Thicke, who is not running for re-election this fall, asked the three mayoral candidates what new potential public amenity they would most proactively campaign for.
Jarmo Venalianen answered first and said public toilets would be the top of his list.
“They don’t cost a lot. So, that wouldn’t be a really difficult thing to do. I would definitely push for that.”
He said the West Coast Multiplex would be second on his list.
“I’m a big fan of the Multiplex. The only question that I’ve had and still have is ‘how do we afford it?’,” he said. “I don’t see it as being an increase to our taxes. I see the solution one where it is a facility that interests the tourists. And, I’m going to throw other options out there, like, if we want to go with an ice rink, I’m throwing this out there, maybe some NHL teams would like to practice next to Long Beach. That’s a long shot, but you never know. You start talking to people, maybe they get interested.”
READ MORE: Tofino not backing out of Multiplex, for now
He said a trail connecting Tofino to the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve would be his next priority.
“We’re going to have a lot of people going to Ukee by bikes, and we don’t have a trail and it’s not very pretty down that road when it’s dark and rainy,” he said.
Josie Osborne said the current council has secured $3 million of funding towards extending the multi-use path to the Park Reserve.
“That’s a project that is going to take place and hopefully be built in the next few years,” she said.
She added that Tofino has RMI funding that allows for projects to be built without using taxpayers money.
She said the most realistic new amenity she sees coming to town is a gymnasium.
“That’s something that has been discussed by the Tofino Recreation Commission. It’s something that the community has asked for. We don’t have enough access to the [Wickaninnish Community] school gym right now,” she said.
She added Tofino has funding opportunities from the province’s new community spaces funding.
“This is something that I hope the community will also support and will be able to move forward on and something that actually might be constructed within the next few years,” she said.
Omar agreed with Venailanen about more public toilets being needed and added that clean water sources around beaches would also be a good move.
He suggested the operating costs of the Multiplex’s ice rink would be excessive because of the cost to keep the rink cool in Tofino’s relatively warm climate and recommended looking into a synthetic ice surface.
“I’ve seen a company that actually makes synthetic plastic ice with recycled plastic, which I feel would be ideal for a place like Tofino.”
He also suggested launching a college in town.
“I think post-secondary education is extremely important and it’s a way to actually get an income for the town,” he said.
District staff costs
Gary Marks asked the candidates about the relationship between council and the municipal staff and suggested that cutting staffing costs could help alleviate property tax pressures.
The question was directed to the incumbent council candidates.
“Council’s role with staff, I think, is to be part of a team that is working towards the community’s goals,” said Al Anderson.
He added council always keeps an eye on staff size and cost.
“I know that many people that have lived here for a long time, including myself, have seen the staff grow, but we’ve seen the needs of our town grow an awful lot too and we need the right team in place,” he said. “I think the quality of staff is really important. At times, we’ve kept wages really low and we haven’t attracted the best people and we haven’t come up with the best results out of doing that.
Dorothy Baert said when she was first elected to council 10 years ago, staff retention was an issue.
“We had kind of a revolving door of positions in management, particularly the CAO position. The reputation of Tofino as a place to work wasn’t really very good and I think that’s really turned around a lot,” she said.
She added though that wages are a challenge.
“I think it’s a good thing that we have a unionized staff, but it doesn’t make it easy when you’re talking about costs and negotiations and so forth,” she said.
Duncan McMaster said he was critical of staff when he first arrived on council.
“I thought they were fairly young and inexperienced, but they have grown in leaps and bounds in their experience. Their knowledge of legal issues and contract law is excellent now. I think we have a good staff,” he said. “My problem is that we’re unionized so that controls wages and, often, the negotiating union team is coming out of somewhere like Nanaimo and we get kind of stuck.”
Affordable housing was surprisingly one of the last issues brought to the candidates, with Sophie L’Homme raising it from the audience.
L’Homme said she arrived in Tofino three years ago and feels she arrived too late to enter the housing market.
“I will never be making a salary decent enough to afford anything in town. I’m an artist as you all know and I want to be involved in this community,” she said. “What can be done to keep people like me here?..I have seen way too many people that are keys to our community going away.”
She directed the question to Andrea McQuade, Chris Heisterman and Tom Stere.
McQuade said losing key members of the community is a real threat to Tofino.
“Tofino is a thriving town but it runs the risk of being a dying community,” she said. “When we lose people involved in the arts, when we lose people that want to begin businesses, just for the simple fact that they can’t find a place to live, I think we lose a lot of what I’ve seen makes Tofino unique and beautiful.”
She added Tofino has been struggling in a housing crisis for a while, and suggested the current council has not dealt with the issue with enough expediency.
“I think that it needs to be ramped up and part of that happens by having a council that looks like the people that it’s working for,” she said adding the younger candidates are more in tune to the urgency than their incumbent counterparts.
Chris Heisterman suggested work must be done to ensure new developments support local residents rather than add to Tofino’s short-term rental supply.
“That’s something we really need to look at,” he said. “So that new developments, new zoning, supports more local residents rather than being exploited as nightly rentals.”
He added there is opportunity in public funding to create more supply.
“Supply and demand is kind of a base cost for this kind of thing, so as long as we have more supply we should have lower cost as well.”
Tom Stere said housing was an issue in Tofino when he moved to the community 30 years ago.
“There are some real market forces out there that a municipality, unfortunately, does not have control over, but there are some initiatives that a municipality can take,” he said.
He said he liked the idea of allowing secondary buildings on lots specifically for long-term rentals.
“There is just not a lot of supply out there and when there’s not a lot of supply those prices are escalating,” he said. “Council should take this extremely seriously because we do have the ability to create housing in this town.”
Another audience member asked if there was anything that could be done in the area of zoning that would lead to affordable housing.
Craig Heber said he is a big advocate for creating zoning that allows for small lots and small homes.
“There’s a big change generationally, people who created these zoning laws they wanted big house, big spaces. There’s a great many of us who realize that green houses, reusing, building, solar; there’s a different way to live than a four-bedroom house with a huge mortgage that you have to rent out at night so that you can afford the mortgage,” he said.
“There is a generational change where what you were brought up to expect and want as a home and what’s good for the planet and the environment are two different things. And, Tofino should be leading resort communities with small, green, affordable housing for long term residents.”
Dorothy Baert said she has been hearing about tiny homes and cluster communities and likes the concept.
“I like made in Tofino solutions to Tofino problems,” she said.
She added that she sits on the board of the Tofino Housing Corporation, which is currently working on an affordable housing project at District Lot 114.
“I’m very excited with what’s coming down the pike for funding and putting shovels in the ground,” she said.
Eric Kingsley said there is much to consider in terms of creating new housing, including the increase in demand on infrastructure.
“It’s not simply, ‘We just put a new house on this land and everything’s fine,’” he said adding water and electricity must be considered. “The demand on these resources is already really strong. We are projecting to grow and we have to find a solution.”
He said he liked the idea of small cluster communities.
“That’s a very good option. It’s really quaint. It’s really fun. It’s really easy and it’s really affordable,” he said adding Tofino needs to experiment with different ways of doing things to find a way that works for Tofino.
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