The Union of Northern Workers & The Thebacha Chamber of Commerce asked.
Question 1: What is the one thing you would like to accomplish during your term?
My goal as councilor is to work hard and do my homework, ensure the public is being engaged and make sure I give full consideration and thought to every decision.
There are very few things that you complete as a councilor that you should take singular credit for accomplishing. Everything requires collaboration and the support of your fellow councilors and the Town of Fort Smith staff. As well as the buy-in and support of the public. Sometimes even with all those things, you may not accomplish your goal because outside factors prevent it from happening within the expected period, or at all.
My first term as a councilor I wanted more sidewalks. Over five years, multiple tenders were awarded, and project extensions were granted, and yet only a fraction of the intended sidewalks were completed before the planned sidewalk expansions were simply canceled. My 2nd term as councilor I strived to set more realistic and attainable goals and made the development and implementation of comprehensive waste management and reduction the cornerstone of my election platform. My 2nd term came to an end, and even with the full support of Council and the Town of Fort Smith. Only the request for proposal for the development of a waste management plan had been completed. But there had been multiple public consultations, surveys and a lot of advanced work completed by public advisory boards. Another two years past and a comprehensive waste management plan had been completed and adopted by council, but implementation arguably the most complicated and expensive component remains incomplete.
I want to return to council to try and see the implementation of a comprehensive waste management plan through to completion. Because I have learned that even though I may not have completed exactly what I set out to in my earlier terms as councilor, I do not consider my time or efforts to have been in vain or to have been a failure. I know that a good councilor isn’t measured by a singular goal or accomplishment and that often things can be more complicated than they initially seem.
Question 2: What does leadership mean to you? What are your leadership qualities? Define your style of leadership.
To me, leadership means inspiring and empowering those around you with your actions, your commitment, and your beliefs. It means helping others to be great, advancing your goals as a team and ensuring they receive recognition before you do. It means seeking the advice of those with more experience when needed, and never thinking you know better than all. Leadership means carrying the heavy load without being asked, and not shying away from making hard decisions when you need to.
I try to meet my own expectations for what I consider good leadership, and in doing so try to display the qualities and leadership style that I have idealized. I believe that no one chooses themselves to be a leader, true leaders are chosen by others. There is a distinct difference from being in a position of power or authority and being a true leader.
Question 3: How is it possible for property owners to accumulate such large tax arrears? What will be your strategy for collection to prevent this from happening in the future?
Though an unfortunate reality, it is possible for many reasons. Every corporation has to manage bad debts and seek to minimize outstanding accounts receivable. In some cases there is a large amount of tax arrears on a property that has poorly defined ownership or requires cooperation between multiple levels of government to settle the arrears. Or it is because sometimes there is a limited number of tools in the shed to use to collect arrears. The process of taking away land with tax arrears and selling it at auction is a complex and lengthy one with legislation (The Property Assessment and Taxation Act) governing what one can and cannot do. The process is time-consuming, with approximately two years required to ensure the process is handled correctly, with additional legal costs building up throughout the process that will be added to the arrears. Even with the threat of losing ones home, some will not, or cannot make the arrangements to pay outstanding taxes. There are even high-interest rates in place that are meant to discourage late or nonpayment of taxes. But that is not still compelling enough in all cases, and those high-interest rates can rapidly inflate the amount owing in arrears and make it harder to collect. Leaving an ever higher amount owing month over month with no advancement of payment.
To prevent this, we need to catch up on arrears and hold a new tax sale. Settle or write off some old debts that will likely never to collected. Then the ensure Town of Fort Smith staff has the financial and human resources necessary to stay on top of the current tax arrears. As it is, I belief the Town of Fort Smith staff are already working to organize a tax sale.
Question 4: In your opinion, what are the Town’s immediate and long-term infrastructure needs?
The Water and Sewer infrastructure upgrades and replacements throughout downtown are still pending. This would require major disruptions to traffic and businesses operating in the area and then paving to properly complete the project. This would be a complicated endeavor and would be a major accomplishment on the town’s behalf given the advanced age of our unground infrastructure throughout town. The recreation and community center has varying mid-life upgrades and retrofits pending. Many capital projects were canceled or postponed indefinitely due to the arena fire several years ago. There was a lot of work and public consultations that went into creating capital project lists and infrastructure improvement plans that I would like to see these revived and revisited.
The most immediate and long-term need for infrastructure facing Town of Fort Smith is the revenue required to effectively reduce the infrastructure deficit in our community. Our infrastructure is aging faster then we can effectively save to maintain or replace it, while also advancing new infrastructure projects. The department of municipal and community affairs has acknowledged that they are under funding small community infrastructure and The Town of Fort Smith has put a lot of work into long-term capital planning and needs assessment. Finding a way forward should be a priority of the next council.
Question 5: Are you willing to cut spending to keep taxes from increasing? What cuts to services would you make?
This is a question that cannot be answered in a vacuum. Municipalities are not allowed to budget a deficit, and at budget time the only “real” way to balance a budget is to increase revenue (taxes and fees) or cut costs (existing services). You can talk about finding new funding opportunities and hope for new program delivery revenue in the upcoming year, but in the end, until the revenue is received, it is hard to budget it.
In the 2018 budget, the Town of Fort Smith had approximately $8,700,000 of expected revenue, of that $8,700,000 approximately $2,000,000 is revenue from taxation. Meaning approximately 23% of revenue is directly sourced from taxation. Of that $2,000,000 approximately $1,500,000 (17%) is residential taxes and $500,000 (5.7%) is non-residential (commercial, industrial and institutional). Another $1,200,000 (14%) of revenue is acquired via Grants in Lieu of Taxes which are affected by tax rates so could be considered revenue equal or similar to taxation. The Grants in lieu of taxes share of overall revenue it is broken up approximately as follows $200,000 (2.3%) Federal Government, $830,000 (9.5%) GNWT, $100,000 (1%) Salt River First Nation. Other revenue based on fees set by council, the sales of services and program deliveries amount to approximately $720,000 (8%) of total revenue. That makes the estimated total amount of revenue that council can influence at approximately $3,900,000 or about 45% of total revenue. The remaining major revenue sources are grants from the GNWT Department of municipal and community affairs O&M funding $1,900,000 (22%) and conditional grants from federal and GNWT funding programs $2,900,000 (33%).
This information is relevant in trying to convey where revenue comes from and understand what revenue council can influence in the overall picture, as well as what share of revenue taxation represents. I do not believe the taxpayers of Fort Smith are a bottomless source of tax revenue. In fact, if the recent budget is compared to the budget data from 2009, it shows a troubling trend in that our revenue from residential taxation is almost identical nearly ten years later, even though taxes have increased year over year. To me, this indicates that a smaller number of people are paying an ever-increasing amount of taxes just to maintain historical revenue from taxation. Which is not sustainable as it means that if the trend continues unabated that ever-increasing mill rate hikes will be required but that the burden will continue to be disproportionately carried by a smaller number of rate payers. With the actual revenue gained from these larger mill rate increases still only representing a very small increase in revenue as a whole.
All of that simply raises the point; if revenue from taxation has been reasonably flat even with the increased taxation. How has the Town of Fort Smith managed to deliver balanced budgets, infrastructure improvements, capital investments, employee wage increases, and expanded recreational programs? The answer is that the Town of Fort Smith Staff, and the Council that Governs the Town of Fort Smith have worked hard to balance the budget and adjusts programs and services in a manner that is reasonable and respectful to citizens, taxpayers and the employees of the Town of Fort Smith. I would encourage the Town of Fort Smith to continue that practice.
There should not be any cuts that are easy to make when balancing a budget. If reductions to services are required, then the decision would be based on input from Town staff, data, and statistics on usage and thorough discussion by council. Even then cuts to services should be managed by the adjustment or reduction of deliveries and not the elimination of any specific service or position. I don’t support increased taxation to maintain unsustainable practices. However, I support fair taxation that attempts to keep up with inflation and not inflict the pain of trying to manage hundreds of small budget cuts to try and fund forced growth year after year.
Question 6: If a property tax exempt homeowner runs a home-based business, should they lose their property tax exemption? Why?
A policy that would seek to exclusively revoke the property tax exemptions of seniors and the disabled because they chose to operate a home business is not something I would support. Simply revoking someone’s property tax exemption due to them operating a home business lacks a rational sense of scope or scale. If the question is, do I think it’s fair for someone to run a medium to large size operation out of their home, while avoiding paying commercial or even residential taxes, then my answer is no. However, in my experience, many of the issues or concerns raised about the operation of home occupation businesses are normally a matter of perception, or bylaw & regulatory enforcement. Unfairness is often cited, and in many cases is a very real and understandable concern. This has been discussed for many years and by many administrations. The only way I see the Town of Fort Smith being able to correct many of the issues of fairness raised against home occupation businesses would be to create reporting requirements and set some form of tiered or progressive structure for evaluating the size of ones home operation. I struggle to reconcile if I support invasive reporting and a more complicated approval process, or if it is what is required to ensure fairness for our business operators who have invested in commercial development.
I see home occupation businesses in two different veins. One is a business startup and incubator system that allows residents the flexibility to start and grow a small home business to a capacity where they are ready to move into a commercial property, hire staff and grow larger. And another is a small business registration system that allows small operators, consultants, non-profits and skilled services to have a licensed, registered home business that is above board, but may never grow large or produce enough revenue to expand, higher staff or move into a commercial space.
In the end what is needed is fairness, regardless of taxation levels. We need bylaws, taxation, and zoning that is fair, attractive and sustainable. We want to encourage growth and development, but support our existing residents and business operators. We need to have an open and honest dialog with everyone about the roadblocks and issues we face and what may be needed to improve them.
Garrett Hinchey with CBC North asked the following.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Christian Westwell, but I normally go by Chris. I have been a resident of Fort Smith for over 15 years. I moved here when I was 20 to work as an “IT guy” at Cascade Computers. I have been employed as an “IT guy” at Aurora College for the last 10 years.
What is your background?
I successfully ran for council in 2009 and 2012. I served 2 consecutive terms, then in 2015, I took a break and didn’t run for council so I could focus on starting a family. During my time on council, I was chair of the Corporate Services Committee and was the representative for Town council on the Fort Smith Housing authority, Northern life museum, and sustainable development advisory board. I have served on the Union of Northern workers Local 12 executive, representing the employees of Aurora College in Fort Smith for the last 9 years; I am currently serving as President.
Why are you running for council?
I love politics, discussion and debate. I consider serving the public and ensuring you are an informed and engaged citizen an important pillar of a healthy community, healthy country and healthy democracy. I love the work, and the opportunity you have to positively affect the day-to-day lives of people in my community.
What are your priorities if you are elected?
My priorities as a counselor are to listen to my constituents and seek their feedback and input on important matters. Do my homework, know my subject matter and ensure I am making informed and educated decisions. More singular priorities would be to seek follow through on implementation of the waste management plan that I have been working with the Town of Fort Smith on for a number of years. Additionally I would like to revisit and review existing bylaws with a goal of ensuring that Fort Smith has fair and attractive taxation, bylaws and zoning.
Why should people tick your name on election day?
I am ready to work for them.
Simon Whitehouse with Northern News Services asked the following.
What Position are you running for?
## and have issues with asking candidates age. It simply creates an opportunity for people to make sweeping judgments based not on one’s contribution to the community, work ethic, ability to work collaboratively or political stance. Seems to open the door to age discrimination for both young candidates and seniors.
This yet another questionable request for candidates to be expected to provide. Sounds more like litmus test of “Traditional values” that may just create bias against younger candidates and others whom may no longer be married or even wish to marry.
Time in Area:
2 Terms as Town Councilor 2009-2015. Chair of the Town of Fort Smith Corporate Services Standing Committee 2010-2015. Current UNW Local 12 President, and other various UNW Local 12 executive positions over the last 9 years. Current Chair of the Town of Fort Smith Sustainable Development Advisory Board, and Board member for the last 8 years. Fort Smith Housing Authority Board Member for 5 years. Current Treasurer and board member of the Northern life museum and Culture Centre for 8 years. Other assorted not for profit society roles and activities over the last 10 years.
I love the work; Fort Smith is my home, and this is one of the ways I can give back to a community that has been so good to me. I have remained active in public advisory board roles while I wasn’t on council and we made a lot of progress on important initiatives for our community. I would now like to pick up the ball from the council side of things and see things through.
What differentiates you from other candidates:
I have worked with and know many of the candidates who have put their name forward, some I know very little. Regardless, I would look forward to working with whomever the citizens of Fort Smith select to be their councilors. I would expect and hope that each of us brings something unique to the community that sets us apart, it is variety that makes democracy work.
Top election issue:
I want to work with council and the Town of Fort Smith on enhancing our Bylaws, Zoning and Taxation systems to ensure they are fair and optimized for sustainable growth in all sectors while also being attractive to developers, businesses and new residents. There is room for improvement in our communication and education of existing bylaws that may help encourage development and alleviate some existing rental accommodation shortage issues.
But there is never just one issue facing a community, and in my experience, things are never as simple or honest as election promises and platforms make them out to be. There is always a lot of work to be done in advancing policy development. There is the ongoing work to be done ensuring our town has the necessary resources available to adequately maintain, upgrade and improve our vital infrastructure. Which normally only becomes harder every year with funding arrangements that fall far too short of their requirements and leave an ever-growing infrastructure deficit.
The Town has adopted a new and very comprehensive waste management plan that I believe could use extra support from within council to see initiated and successfully launched in a manner that is sustainable and equitable to rate payers.
Obviously the GNWT’s plans for Aurora College is an important issue that is on nearly everyone’s minds.
What does a healthy community look like to you?
It looks a lot like Fort Smith; not perfect but working on it.