By George Brown
If Ponoka voters want a change in their representation on town council, they have a lot to choose from.
Twelve candidates are running to fill six seats and among them are five incumbents with varying lengths of service. Seeking office are Rick Bonnett, Drew Dougherty, Doug Gill, Loanna Gulka, Beva Hamilton, Julian Hudson, John Jacobs, Dave MacPherson, James Nakoneshny, Jerry Siemens, Jack Surbey, and Izak van der Westhuizen.
All were on stage at the Kinsmen Community Centre Oct. 7 for a forum hosted by the Ponoka and District Chamber of Commerce.
While the challengers for office want residents to change their voting habits, even the incumbents conceded council has to change the way it deals with economic development, communication with residents and its relationships with neighbouring municipalities.
Bonnet’s call for change was the most pointed; he said councillors with more than two terms experience should step aside or run for mayor and make way for new ideas.
Again Mayor Larry Henkelman was unopposed.
“The reason I’m running for town council is we need a change,” Bonnett told more than 200 residents at the forum. “I’m running because we need some openness, we need some new, fresh ideas and we need some new perspective.”
Gulka is relatively new to Ponoka and she too wants councillors to serve a limited number of terms, three for councillors and three years for mayor. While imposing legislated term limits is a provincial government responsibility, she believes local politicians should set the limit themselves and mentor new candidates to ensure a smooth transition in office.
Doug Gill has served two terms and insisted council is always adapting to the needs of the community, adapting its long range plans to reflect changing priorities. He pointed to several infrastructure projects that have been completed in the last three years or are now underway, such as the 50th Street and 57th Avenue road improvements, the new visitor information centre, community events sign and annexation as signs council is moving the town forward.
Town council is the most important level of government and it’s important residents talk to the candidates and let their concerns be heard, he said. “This is where decisions are made that affect you directly and daily.”
Council has to be mindful of the bottom line, said John Jacobs. Every $40,000 increase in spending equals a one-per-cent increase in taxes. “Our job is to not raise taxes too much while maintaining the level of services residents expect.”
“I want to keep your tax increases to a minimum,” echoed Jack Surbey. “It’s hard to do with the level of service we have established so far.”
Surbey said it’s important council and administration work to improve communication so residents understand council’s policies, decisions and priorities.
Not only does council need to communicate better, it must also work to “restore a relationship of trust with residents, said van der Westhuizen, a resident of 38th Street. He pointed to the ongoing issue of utilities costs as damaging to the community.
More hospital beds needed
Van der Westhuizen said the closure and lack of acute care beds at the Ponoka Hospital and Care Centre is a source of frustration for physicians and nursing staff “who want to see beds open but our hands are tied.”
He said council, must continue to lobby the provincial government and Alberta Health Services to open more beds.
Hamilton, a registered nurse, said the council and people of Ponoka need to make their voices heard by government.
“The reason acute care beds are not available in Ponoka is because we lack a situation of long term care.” Patients are backed up in the system with long term care patients living in acute care beds.
She said council also needs to pressure the government to expand long term care options in Ponoka.
Questions from the audience generally concerned the candidates’ plans to attract industry and provide jobs for new families. Most see the need to quicken the pace of residential growth and offer incentives to new businesses if that’s what it takes to compete with other central Alberta municipalities.
“We are trending downward in growth,” said Nakoneshny, who presented statistics indicating that over the last 24 years Ponoka has grown by just 1,227 people; 370 people over the last nine years; and by just 124 people over the last four years.
“From 2001 to 2005 we fell behind everybody in regards to development growth,” he said. “I really believe we need growth and we need it fast.”
Van der Westhuizen agreed, adding: “My opinion is we should grow faster than we have in the last 10 years.”
Surbey said Ponoka’s growth rate of 1.5 to two per cent is the national average. “Slow, controlled growth is the national average, which we are sitting right on, so I am happy with that.”
To try to promote Ponoka to industrial and residential developers, Surbey said the town has hired an economic development officer and established an economic development committee.
“We have to shop locally, we have to support our local businesses. That helps in the long run,” he said.”
Siemens admitted Ponoka has fallen behind the growth seen in communities such as Lacombe and Blackfalds. “I would like to see more growth. We need more growth. We have to do everything we can to attract more people.”
Jacobs said council should be selective about the new businesses it courts, not wanting a hog slaughtering plant in town. He cautioned residents not to expect lower taxes just because new industry or residential subdivisions are developed here. “Please tell me where that happens.”
Hudson added that the communities residents see as being more desirable than Ponoka have higher tax rates. “The towns we envy all charge more. So be careful what you wish for.”
It’s important Ponoka’s growth keep pace with its neighbours, said Gulka. Residential growth will ensure there is a workforce available.
Ponoka doesn’t need the headaches of “crazy, Fort McMurray growth,” said Bonnett, but it can do more to attract development.
He said Ponoka was once an economic and political powerhouse in Alberta but has fallen behind. “Ponoka could be a powerhouse once again.”
Town council should get out of the development and land sales business and leave it up to private enterprise. Council should make Ponoka an attractive alternative for industry and sit back and collect the taxes.
Council needs to be careful that growth doesn’t out-pace the capacity of its infrastructure to service new development, said Gill. It will cost communities such as Sylvan Lake “a fortune to upgrade” their infrastructure.
Dougherty said the town’s annexation proposal and the residential developments planned for Hudson’s Green and Caladera will allow the town to better plan for growth.
He also suggested people calling for new businesses in town consider filling the void in retail services.
“It’s really easy to say we need a shoe store,” he said. “You know what? Maybe (you should) open a shoe store.”
One businessman questioned the wisdom of selling industrial lots in Ponoka for $200,000 while lots in Lacombe are selling considerably less.
Council could reduce the cost of lots to below cost but Jacobs wondered “how much of a subsidy should we give to a developer?”
Gill said the cost of lots in Ponoka may be higher because council holds developers to a higher standard, requiring services, paved roads and curbs and gutters.
To attract new businesses, Bonnett suggested council lessen its requirements initially, giving businesses a few years to make a go of it.
“Let the businesses in, collect the taxes off of them, stay out of the business of developing land and let the land developers out there step up to the plate and come into town.”
Eldred Stamp asked the candidates for their one idea to improve the community. Not all responded.
Rick Bonnett: He wants to see improvement sin the town’s recreation services, perhaps building an indoor walking track.
Loanna Gulka: “I want to give the community what they want.” She would poll residents to determine their priorities.
Julian Hudson: “I would like to see the county and town amalgamate with each other.”
James Nakoneshny: He would like to form a task force to develop a plan for what Ponoka should look like as a community a generation from now.
Doug Gill: To better understand the needs of the town and county, he wants to see an intermunicipal development plan created.
Jack Surbey: He wants to preserve Ponoka’s history by encouraging owners of historically significant buildings to have them designated local and provincial historic sites.
Izak van der Westhuizen: His priority is to restore trust and respect between council, civic administration and residents.
Jerry Siemens: He wants to continue working to create an attractive environment for business. “We have to work to create and atmosphere, a positive atmosphere and that starts with each and every one of us.”
“Businesses won’t want to come here if we don’t support them.”
Beva Hamilton: Ponoka needs to develop and attitude that creates opportunities for new businesses to locate in town. Council should be concerned with working with industry to create jobs, expand the tax base and improving services.
Dave MacPherson: Describing himself as an “advocate for the challenged and disabled,” he would work to improve Greyhound bus routes to neighbouring communities as well as providing more affordable housing for seniors and people who are discharged from Centennial Centre.—30–