Homelessness becomes a civic election issue

Homelessness isn't much of a problem in Whitehorse, says mayoral candidate Al Fedoriak. "The homeless population is not that great (in Whitehorse) and some of these people are there by choice," said Fedoriak.

Homelessness isn’t much of a problem in Whitehorse, says mayoral candidate Al Fedoriak.

“The homeless population is not that great (in Whitehorse) and some of these people are there by choice,” said Fedoriak as he answered a question posed to him and Mayor Bev Buckway during an all-candidate’s meeting on Wednesday evening.

Although homelessness doesn’t normally fall under the responsibility of the city, it can properly zone an area to create supportive housing, said Buckway, who participated in the Whitehorse Anti-Poverty Coalition’s couch-surfing challenge this week.

Homelessness and housing were unexpected topics during Wednesday and Thursday’s all-candidates forum, and helped differentiate the views of the two mayoral candidates and some councillors.

“These people need a safe, clean place to go where they’re not under threat,” said Buckway.

Using the old Canadian Tire Building on Ogilvie Street to consolidate social services in the city was suggested by incumbent councillor Dave Stockdale during Thursday’s forum.

The building, which has long been empty, would be a “one-stop-shop – a hostel for the homeless,” said incumbent councillor Dave Austin.

“I don’t see a social services department in the city, but you see us moving towards that, (and) we shouldn’t be,” said incumbent Douglas Graham.

Creating adequate and desirable housing options in a city with a known lot shortage became a flashpoint for candidates.

Densifying the downtown with buildings taller than three storeys at the base of the clay cliffs was one suggestion from rookie candidate Ron Swizdaryk.

“We should have a four-storey rule put into effect instead of sprawling all over the place,” he said.

But a need for “choice” in the housing supply was favoured by Graham who, in the past, has criticized the city’s newer subdivisions for their smaller lot sizes.

Large lots with plenty of backyard space was the vision supported by Fedoriak. People should also have the freedom to maintain properties in whatever way they choose, he said.

“I don’t want Big Brother looking over my shoulder telling me what colour the siding of my house should be.”

However, all candidates agreed taxes on these properties should be as low as possible.

Capping property taxes dominated many of the forums, even though Whitehorse boasts some of the lowest property taxes in the country.

Between 2005 and 2007, Whitehorse residents paid an average of $1,123 on their homes – several hundred dollars less than the national average of property taxes paid by Canadians in that same time period.

“Your property taxes will continue to increase, no doubt in my mind,” said newcomer candidate Graham Lang, who called “spiraling taxes” one of his main issues.

“Council should stop increasing mill rates,” said Skeeter Miller-Wright.

Taxes should “increase to a bare minimum,” said Graham. He acknowledged, however, that people are “living in a fool’s paradise” if they think the city can run without tax increases.

Raising taxes at a rate of one per cent each year, rather than the inconsistent amounts they’ve been raised over the last six years, was suggested by candidate Janet Brault at Thursday’s forum.

But alternatives to raising taxes were hard to find.

Siphoning money from people who park downtown wasn’t a popular idea.

“We shouldn’t use parking meters to generate revenue,” said Fedoriak.

And a downtown parkade is still out of the question, according to Buckway.

“It would cost $50,000 per stall to build. Technically, we don’t have a reason to build a parkade at this point,” she said at Thursday’s forum.

Areas where the city was hoping to generate income, such as the waterfront development, need to be reconsidered, said council hopeful Michael Buurman and Austin.

A dismal return on waterfront investments contributed to the $500,000 deficit reported at last month’s council meeting.

“We have to re-look at how much we’re charging for those properties,” said candidate Michael Buurman.

But decreasing the price of the lots isn’t the answer, said Austin.

“We need to get third-party people involved. We’ve tried to sell the land but it hasn’t worked, so let real estate people do the work.”

Protecting McIntyre Creek and the city’s extensive system of ski trails from mineral staking were issues raised by citizens at both forums.

Informal hand counts were requested of the candidates to gauge where they stood on the issues.

All the candidates, except Fedoriak and Buckway, raised their hands to show they supported preserving these areas.

It was an about-face for Buckway who, earlier, called the ski trails, “very valuable,” and said the issue “was of great concern.”

A great deal of lip service was paid to the city’s 50-year sustainability plan, but few candidates suggested concrete ideas.

The city’s competing economic and environmental interests were commented on by Swizdaryk.

“We’re trying to promote transit but creating more parking for vehicles at the same time,” he said.

However, suggestions about how to take the city’s transit service off life support were scarce.

“We could try doing a joint pass with the Canada Games Centre and market the hell out of it,” said Buckway.

“But we’ve been knocking the hell out of it (transit) for the last nine years, so if it doesn’t work, I’m afraid it won’t happen.”

Dial-a-bus during off-peak hours was a suggestion offered by Fedoriak on Wednesday.

“We already have a dial-a-bus service, it’s called taxis,” said Austin on Thursday.

Deciding which candidates will make the cut at next week’s election will be difficult, said former city mayor Ione Christensen, who attended both forums.

“There is a lack of understanding from the new (candidates) of what is entailed in council,” she said.

“I heard good things spoken about sustainability, green space and fiscal responsibility – I’m just not sure if the candidates understood these ideas beyond the words they spoke.”

Municipal elections take place October 15.

Contact Vivian Belik at

vivianb@yukon-news.com

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