At an early breakfast meeting on Oct. 26, the two mayoral candidates for the District of Sooke met with members of the Sooke Region Chamber of Commerce.
Wendal Milne and Dave Bennett briefly outlined their platforms, priorities and vision for Sooke.
Milne spoke about his vision and how to reach it. He said council needed both short and long term goals which were achievable.
“A vision is just a dream unless you take steps,” he said.
Milne said he has lived a long time in Sooke and sat back and watched what was going on in the district and gave serious consideration to running for political office. It is a large time commitment and it was necessary to have a council with strong leadership that makes decision which are transparent. He felt consultation with and listening to the community was necessary.
Taxes and the need to control increases was important as budget spending was outstripping growth.
He wants people to be proud of a downtown core which is accessible to all. A West Coast theme and development consistent with the OCP would help make Sooke a more attractive place for business and would encourage more tourism.
David Bennett said he was a team builder who draws on the best of council and staff.
“I am an effective listener,” he said.
He wants to make Sooke healthy and vibrant not just for special interests.
“I am inclusive, approachable and a visionary.”
He said that Sooke residential tax rate in 2010 was the second lowest out of 15 similar municipalities. He defended the number of employees at the municipal hall stating that Sooke has the leanest operation in B.C. He spoke of the failed referendum to build a connector route and how the cheque had to be returned because the people of Sooke voted down the road.
He said people were “screaming” for lights, sidewalks, nice paving, etc. without wanting increased taxes.
Business would come to the community by way of technology, he said, the people would be able to “commute from home by computer.”
Questions were asked of the candidates as to the role of the chamber and whether they would continue to receive funding from the district. Both said they supported the chamber, as well initiatives such as the Sooke Subaru Triathlon, Sooke Fine Arts Show, Pacific Marine Circle Route, etc.
When Randy Welters, chamber president, asked the candidates about the high commercial tax rates in Sooke, Bennett said, “our business taxes are the fourth lowest of 15 communities. He said they would attempt to lower them, but this is “challenging times for local government.” He said the highest increase had been 5.97 per cent in the past three years.
Milne said he expects the residential tax increases to amount to 27 per cent over the next five years, necessary because the DCCs and building permit fees are down. He said our taxes were near the bottom (compared to other communities) but one had to look at the assessments and what residents were getting for their taxes. He did not think the district could afford to cut taxes.
Bennett said some candidates were stating that the district is bankrupt, which he said is not true. He said the five-year financial plan is just a plan and is not written in concrete.
“If we have less than 2 per cent growth, we go back to the drawing board and adjust the five-year plan,” said Bennett.
Milne had mentioned the fact that the district had some of the highest paid staff and five further full time equivalent jobs at the district could raise taxes by a further 1 per cent. He said wages should be flatlined.
Bennett countered by stating that, “yes, we have high paid management staff, it’s difficult to find people with expertise at the local government level.” He went on to defend the budgets for the fire department and conferences and travel. He said he didn’t consider attending conferences to be a waste of time.
Milne said, “I don’t want the fire department to go away… I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, the (new) fire truck was unnecessary.” He said the department should not be spending money if there is no money in the account.
Further conversation about residential tax increases ensued, with Karen Mason stating that a figure quoted by Milne of 65 per cent tax increases in Sunriver was untrue and irresponsible.
Milne said that the bottom line of expenses in the district has doubled and growth has not.
“You’re living in a bubble here,” he said. “The world is in trouble.”
Other chamber members talked about signage or lack of it, the “real” cost of Townsend Road improvements and the need for a more research or testing before money was spend on changes to roads.
“Research and development doesn’t happen in Sooke,” said Shaun Welters. “We should try temporary measures to test things out… we go backwards so many times, it’s ridiculous.”
Bennett said the district is less than 12 years old and they inherited plans from the CRD.
“Our district bends over backwards to communicate,” said Bennett. “We encourage people to attend public hearings, open houses, we have a website and a newsletter. I feel we have worked hard to include people.”
More road talk about the proposed roundabout came up and Bennett said plans are still in the works and negotiations are still ongoing with property owners.
Both candidates said they are fans of roundabouts.
Milne asked how quick did we need it and the need to weigh such a big expenditure.
Other comments and questions regarding using local expertise for large building projects taking place in Sooke and transparency at the district level followed.
The next mayoral candidates Q&A takes place on Nov. 4 at the Sooke Harbour House. The candidates will be asked to talk of sustainability. The meeting takes place ay 7 p.m. in the Potlatch Room (downstairs). The Sooke Region Chamber of Commerce is also hosting an all-candidates meeting at Edward Milne Community School on Tuesday, Nov. 8 from 7 to 9:30 p.m.