Politicians are not renowned for keeping campaign promises, but if what was said during the recent election can be believed, Whitehorse residents can expect the new council to play a bigger role in addressing social issues, such as homelessness and affordable housing.
The last city council was hesitant to take on that responsibility. “It’s not in our mandate,” was a common refrain.
Even when it came to something as innocuous as joining the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination – a largely symbolic gesture – it took a tremendous amount of public pressure to force council’s hand.
Making any firm financial commitments to social enterprises – the ski hill notwithstanding – was something the previous council had little stomach for.
The new mayor, Dan Curtis, was hesitant to make firm commitments to pricey propositions like expanding transit services without first having funding in place.
The city doesn’t have a lot of leeway in terms of generating revenue.
Council has looked at taxing derelict and underused proprieties at a high rate in an effort to force owners to develop them, but it dropped the idea because it ran counter to the Municipal Act.
While the Municipal Act narrowly defines what kinds of taxes the city can level, it is less stringent about the kinds of services that the city can offer.
Under section 248(1), it states: “A municipality may, when it is in the public interest, supply for public consumption; or provide for public benefit or convenience, any service or product which the council considers is necessary or desirable for the residents of the municipality.”
That means there is nothing stopping the city from implementing what Betty Irwin termed an Ardrie-like solution to the affordable housing crisis.
Ardrie, Alberta, is a small town – about the size of Whitehorse – just north of Calgary.
When oil prices spiked a few years ago, Ardrie found itself facing an acute shortage of affordable rental housing.
To solve that problem, Ardrie, with the help of the Alberta government, set up an arms-length non-profit to buy properties up around town – including a 32-unit apartment building that was in the process of being turned into condos – and rent out to people in need.
It took $9 million for Ardrie to set up that corporation. While Whitehorse doesn’t have that kind of money sitting around, the Yukon government does.
The federal government gave the territory more than $17 million back in 2008 to pay for affordable housing. The Yukon government only recently started to spend that money so there is still a lot left in the bank – more than enough to pay for an Ardrie-like non-profit.
Getting both the municipal and territorial governments working together to solve the city’s issues was something that almost every new councillor said they would work on.
Curtis was so amenable to working with the Yukon government that rumours of political impropriety started to dog his campaign.
While Curtis adamantly denied he was working for the Yukon Party, he pledged that as mayor he would work with them and build a better relationship between the two levels of government.
But Curtis isn’t just planning on reaching out to governments. On election night, he vowed to follow up on his promise to set up town-hall style meetings outside of council chambers to give the public a chance to sound off in a more informal setting.
“From what I’ve heard, knocking on doors and talking to an awful lot of people, they just honestly don’t feel that their voices are being heard,” said Curtis.
Better communication with the public was a theme for almost every candidate. The city was already moving in that direction.
Under the urging of Coun. Kirk Cameron, one of three incumbents to keep his seat on council, the city held two public meetings with the residents of Old Town to work out new zoning rules for the neighbourhood after two high-density developments caused a stir.
There will be more of the same in the next term.
The previous council, with one of its last acts, put aside $60,000 to work with Hillcrest residents to figure out what future development in the neighbourhood will look like.
For Hillcrest, one of the big issues will be the cleanup of the Whitehorse tank farm.
After the environmental assessment is done, it will be up to this next council to ensure public concerns about the project are addressed.
While none of the new councillors are against cleaning up and redeveloping the tank farm, it’s going to be a different story for Porter Creek D.
Two members of the council – Irwin and Joy Curteanu – along with Curtis have opposed the proposed subdivision. The rest of the councillors are reserving their decisions until they see a preliminary design, which is still in the works.
If history is anything to go by, the issue of Porter Creek D will be one of the more controversial decisions for the new council.
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