Talking about the looming Climate Crisis in Lethbridge is....weird. It's hard to motivate folks to see the changing climate as the disaster it is when we seem to have only minimal effects on our local area. We see the extreme weather events in other parts of the world and, given how exhausted everyone is by the current COVID-19 crisis, overwhelmed health-care system, abysmal leadership from provincial and federal leaders, and an economy in the basement the best most of us can muster is an apathetic shrug when it comes to climate change.
The crisis fatigue is real. I totally get that.
Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of picking and choosing what needs our attention anymore. That may have worked in previous decades but now the facts are simple: we're out of time.
However, this isn't a doom-and-gloom post. There's actually opportunity here that I am excited to highlight, so let's dive into how Lethbridge can grow, promote climate resiliency, AND address a lot of our social problems.
Checking 2 Boxes at Once: addressing climate crisis & brain drain.
Throughout the campaign we've heard a lot about how we attract young people to the City and ensure that students studying at our two world-class post-secondary institutions want to stay here and work, raise families, and grow our local economy. Well, attracting folks to live and stay in the community takes a lot of work, and part of that work is finding out what the priorities are for the people you're trying to attract.
I'm 32 years old, and I can tell you the climate crisis is a top priority for people my age and younger.
In addition to having good jobs and affordable housing, I want to know the city I am living in is taking the Climate Crisis seriously and this just isn't something we've seen from local leadership yet. Having a plan to address Climate Change, and actually implementing those steps as it makes sense to do so, will help ensure that Lethbridge remains a vibrant city for generations to come.
Having a plan is the first step, and Lethbridge already has a good one. There were significant portions of the Municipal Development Plan that deal with climate issues and protocols. You can read about them in detail, and decide which priorities you would like to see implemented the soonest, then you can email your council to help push them in the right direction.
There's another opportunity in Lethbridge that we are just starting to realize as well. Lethbridge is a gateway city to adventures on the prairies and we really should be marketing ourselves this way. We have an airport, we are an hour away from mountains, prairies, lakes, national parks, world heritage sites, and in the heart of our city is the adventure playground that is our river-bottom filled with historical places, art, wilderness trails, and educational centers. The gem that is our river-bottom is underutilized by both the people who live here, and the City as a tool to leverage our adventure tourism marketing.
When I came here to go to school, the complaint of my companions was often that there's nothing to "do" in the City. Let's figure out what "do" is, and help local businesses capitalize on the "do". Lethbridge Tourism, which is new since the last election, is really making great strides in promoting the city and the region with eco-tourism and adventure-tourism, which is great!
So, what does Climate Leadership look like at the Municipal level, & why should we care?
Climate Leadership is putting leaders in positions of power to make fundamental changes to priorities at local government levels. Funding priorities through budget adaptation is a tool available to local leaders to dramatically affect how we spend money going forward.
As a candidate, I guarantee that all of my policy decisions will be viewed through several lenses to ensure the decisions meet my priorities. Those lenses are:
I'm not advocating for unbridled growth for the sake of growing either. We need to put leaders in place that understand that in order for Lethbridge to flourish in the future, we need to grow in harmony with the land and walk gently upon it. We can make small policy adjustments, and spending priority adjustments to encourage changes in behaviour. This kind of policy making is often referred to rather divisively as "social engineering" and people often feel resistant to this type of leadership. However, if you look closely at the world around you, you can see the effects of "social engineering" by large corporations that have, over decades of insidious backroom deals, created a world in which our enjoyment and ability to thrive is based solely on our consumer habits that further enrich these corporations.
Personally, I've hit my limit on how much I allow my actions to be controlled by the vested interests of planet-demolishing business. I prefer to find ways to adapt my living to my world, rather than my world to my living. This is what I mean when I say we need to elect progressive leadership: leaders who will look at the complete and complex picture of society and know where to make the little tweaks and changes to allow for the best life for the most people. That's my aim on Council: to make things better. To move Lethbridge Forward. Together.
Couple this with the fact that the post was released 1 day after a meeting of the Police Commission in which a lawyer for a CBC reporter and Lethbridge West MLA Shannon Phillips (NDP) asked for a public review of the actions of LPS personnel regarding whistle-blower information about retaliation against Ms. Phillips and the CBC reporter. Assertions by the lawyer in question were made to the Police Commission that officers that were penalized for their role in stalking Ms. Phillips while she was Minister for the Environment a few years ago and improper use of police resources (accessing databases). It is important to note that the officers implicated in these serious accusations were not dismissed, and are either on administrative leave or are still in active duty, though I understand there have been some demotions as punishment.
So, why am I writing about this today? Well, to lay it all out there: as the kid of a cop this kind of behavior is extremely disturbing to me. I was raised in an RCMP household and was taught that police have a responsibility to their communities to serve and protect everyone in their community. I believe police action should come from a place of service, rather than a place of "force" as so many of our law-enforcement personnel now refer to themselves.
However, what I'm not okay with is this ongoing, pervasive culture of entitlement that seems apparent with some of our police. There are regular reports of police not responding to urgent calls, or berating survivors of sexual assault. There are police with reprimand letters framed in their office: as though belligerence in the "force" is a point of pride.
These are not good police. As the saying goes: a few bad apples spoil the bunch.
So where do we go from here?
Well, City Council is limited in our powers to affect how the police operate in our community. The only real control we DO have is the budget, which I would argue is actually an excellent tool to help guide the communities response to ongoing issues.
One of the biggest questions I get as a candidate is if I will "restore the police budget." You see, when COVID hit, the provincial government reneged on the municipal grant that helps us balance the budget. Cities aren't allowed to run deficits, so when the municipal grant from the province was cut, the outgoing council had to re-open the operational budget and find efficiencies to help balance the books. One of the things they cut: $1million from the Police operating budget.
Now, a lot of folks think this is a shocking thing to cut. "The Crime!" They cry. And many candidates in this municipal race have latched onto the outcry promising to restore the police budget, and in many cases even increase it, to help with our apparently abysmal Crime Severity Index rating.
You can read a really thorough recent breakdown of the CSI stats and how Lethbridge actually compares to other communities over on Kim Siever's news blog here. Mr. Siever does a really excellent breakdown of how stats have changed and where Lethbridge actually ranks.
However, it is important to note that this budget cut from the City was able to be stabilized through the LPS's internal budgeting due to previous years' surpluses. So in effect: the City didn't actually cut policing. They just have to dip into their reserve fund a bit.
However, how we approach solving the problem of homelessness and addiction will really set our community apart.
Essentially, we have an option: Continue with a regressive approach of over-relying on our police service to deal with mental health and addictions issues despite an overflowing court system and the fact that they are inadequately trained at dealing with these issues (this just sets our police service up for failure and isn't fair to our service members).
Elect progressive municipal leaders who will analyze our investment in our policing services, ensuring they are well funded enough to do their jobs properly, but also moving the burden of homelessness and addictions off of their plate and into the mental health stream where it should be. We can make policies that will help fund social organizations and outreach to help transition people into safe supportive housing, create the relationships needed to move people into recovery, and immediately decrease property and non-violent crime in the community so our residents can feel confident and safe in our public spaces again.
The City has an opportunity to make positive changes at a policy level that will filter down to how our administrators and police service deals with addictions, homelessness, and mental health issues. We have the ability to put funding into finding socially appropriate ways to tackle these issues through a lens of public health, rather than law enforcement. We have an opportunity to completely change perceptions in Lethbridge.
Finally, we need some kind of metric with which to measure the success of initiatives put forward by the LPS. Just chronically throwing money into policing is not going to get us anywhere if that money is misspent (not saying it is, I'm just saying there haven't been many metrics and performance indicators lately to judge efficacy). Moving forward with policing in our community, I think we need to take a hard look at how effective our police service is, and how transparent they are about their operations.
To all frontline service-members in our community: you do have my support. However, I expect much of you: leadership and integrity being chief among those expectations. I know you will not disappoint me.
What are the implications if Lethbridge fails to attract new Doctors to the city? And what can City Council do about it?
This is a complex issue, so let's break it down.
Why are doctors leaving? - There are many reasons medical professionals may choose to leave a community and there are a lot of factors for Doctors to stop practicing. I don't pretend to know the ins and outs of every single person's decision-making process, but there are some general trends that are concerning and are worth noting. The first big issue is the Province. The continued war on medical professionals throughout the pandemic has many of our front-line carers burnt out, frustrated, feeling under-appreciated, and is, frankly, shady. The mishandling of the pandemic by the Province, ripping up doctors contracts, changing rural billing (somehow Lethbridge, a city of 100,000 residents, is considered rural [whut?]), and an ongoing demonization of frontline healthcare workers: it isn't really a wonder that our healthcare staff are feeling underappreciated and moving elsewhere. Active recruiting from other jurisdictions including BC, Saskatchewan, and the maritime provinces is drawing our qualified physicians away for proverbial greener pastures. And throughout all of this: the City has been mute.
Technically, this topic is out of jurisdiction for Councils so the silence on the part of the City is expected. However, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and I believe there are some things the City could do to promote Doctor retention and recruitment in the City. But before we get there: what are the implications if this crisis continues to be unsolved?
If we don't fix the problem: Services abandoning a city are a kind of proverbial "canary-in-the-coal-mine". Without easy and equitable access to medical help because of a lack of availability, the City can expect to see fewer people moving to Lethbridge to settle. Access to healthcare is a leading factor in why families will choose to move to a new place, and Lethbridge's lack of access is going to have long-term consequences to City development and growth. This should be a major concern for all City Council candidates, and, because of the jurisdiction issues, it's going to take some innovative thinking to tackle the problem.
In the short-term, Lethbridge Citizens without access to a family doctor or walk-in clinic will need to rely solely on Emergency Room access for their basic healthcare needs. This is disastrous for an already over-burdened ER, particularly in the midst of a pandemic. Clogging up our Emergency Room and Hospital with non-emergency issues will result in longer wait times for services as nurses struggle to triage cases.
In the long-term, we can expect to see fewer families moving to Lethbridge, slowing our growth rate, and creating large gaps in our economy. Our housing market is at risk of stalling out, and property values will plummet as a lack of access to needed medical services has a dramatic effect on our community. This means many folks, whose life savings are tied up in their property, could be facing very strenuous financial times. It will also mean families may choose to move away from Lethbridge, resulting in an even further drain of resources such as labour and education.
Lethbridge is used to the fact that we've been a growing city (steadily growing by 1.5-2% every year) for several decades now. This is the first sign this trend may be slowing, or even reversing, which is definitely something for concern.
So, what can we do? As mentioned above (repeatedly, sorry), recruitment of physicians to our City is generally NOT the purview of Council or City Administration, but that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do about it.
Pillar One: Advocacy. The City needs to take a pro-active role in advocating to the Provincial Government for Doctor Recruitment to Lethbridge. Obviously, with our current government, this is a bit of a problem. Still: the more the City communicates and works with the Province, the better. The City has an opportunity to work closely with the Chinook Primary Care Network to find out why the Doctors are leaving the city, and what we can do to reverse the trend.
Pillar Two: Let's Cut A Deal. Other jurisdictions around the world have also faced the issue of services disappearing from their communities. So how did they handle it? Some places have offered property tax incentives to clinics, allowing for a reduction in operating costs for local family physicians. Others have gone so far as to offer free housing for Doctors, or a reduced residential property tax rate to encourage them to stay here. There are lots of options, and since Doctor care is a NEED, not a want, there has to be a way to make living in Lethbridge attractive to our primary care givers.
Pillar Three: Shifting Culture, Creating Community. We know that Lethbridge is struggling right now with various issues impacting our community. The hostility created by fractured populations is enough to drive people away from Lethbridge, as they seek more wholesome and caring communities to live and raise families in. We've all noticed it: the community is heavily divided along ideological lines and is in desperate need for unifying leadership. This means counting on our civic and community leaders to bring people together, rather than drive them apart. As a community builder, I've worked with many different people to build community from grass-roots and create a welcoming space for everyone. These types of leadership skills, I think, are going to be very important in the coming years as Lethbridge struggles to thrive.
Unfortunately, I don't have all the answers. But I do want to assure you I am reaching out to the healthcare community to find out why Doctors are abandoning the City, and to see if there is anything we can do to stem the exodus. Maintaining high quality of life and care in Lethbridge must be a paramount concern to City Leaders.
(From a Facebook Post: Aug 28, 2021; unedited)
How do you help businesses without cutting taxes?
There are a few ways so let's discuss.
Lethbridge small businesses shoulder a massive portion of the property tax burden in Lethbridge due to the fact that a lot of major research/public/crown property exists. (For example the college, university, city admin buildings, public assets like CASA and YMCA, Provincial buildings, and federal buildings/research stations) don't pay property taxes but do take up large part of city landmass.
Usually the province provides a "grant" to city coffers to account for these buildings taking up city space but with COVID, the grant that usually helps offset the lost tax revenue from these structures was cut by the province.
This puts a lot of pressure on municipalities who now have to deal with budget shortfalls. Fortunately our current city council reopened the budget and made sensible adjustments.
But it's for this reason: the lack of certainty from the province that these lost revenues will be made up in future and the looming recovery from COVID that makes the promise of cutting property taxes in Lethbridge not only impractical, but irresponsible to be promising at this time.
I don't make promises I can't keep, and I don't think cutting taxes in the middle of an economic crisis is right for the community.
As a small business owner, however, I do appreciate that not giving small businesses a break is hurting them too. So, what do we do?
There are a few ways the city can help our small businesses: not by cutting taxes, but by helping with resources and changing a few things.
1. Let's change how commercial property tax works:
At the moment, our tax system disincentivizes beautification and investment because if you raise the vlaue of your property you get taxed higher because our taxes are based on the net worth of the property. The nicer the property = the higher the taxes.
This leads to property owners allowing their structures to fall into disrepair and incentivizes poor upkeep of buildings.
It's literally backwards.
We should be lowering property taxes and incentivizing investment in our commercial community.
2. So where do we make up the lost tax revenue?
You know those giant parking lots all the massive big-box stores have? I want to increase property taxes on those.
There's a bit of a process here so stay with me.
The City has a land use bylaw that has something called a minimum parking requirement. The formula for this was developed in the mid 1960s and uses the square footage area of a building plus the type of business to determine how many parking stalls they are required to provide.
So a lot of that parkinglot sprawl that goes 2/3rds unused MOST of the time? That's baked into our bylaws.
Ignoring the environmental impact here for a second (it's atrocious) we have had a solid 60 years to realize this amount of parking sprawl is horrendously expensive in other ways. Larger city centers like Edmonton and Vancouver have done away with the bylaws requiring these massive investments in asphalt and moved to a system called Open Option Parking: which allows the business to determine how much parking to provide based on real, practical need, not some old formula.
So to justify taxing the asphalt deserts we need to remove the requirement for them. This gives the property owners the opportunity to increase density and utilize space on their property for more economically justifiable pursuits. This creates more density for business and increases our economic tax base.
Or they can keep the parkinglots: and we can tax them on it. This will earn the city more tax revenue to deal with the environmental disaster that sprawl causes.
3. On-street parking in commercial districts...should not be free, sorry.
Here's the thing. I know this opinion is unpopular, and a lot of my fellow business owners are probably really frustrated by this viewpoint, and you absolutely have a right to that viewpoint.
But free parking downtown isn't going to solve the issues. Rather it's a bit of a red herring. Instead, if we focus on increasing the walkability and desirability of the downtown we will get a lot further.
If we remove paid parking in the downtown (with the exception of crisis management like during covid, that was definitely a good call) we incentivize people to park for their work days, making parking limited for customers coming and going throughout the day.
Here's the thing though: PARKING IS FREE AFTER 5 PM.
If you are downtown retail business and you want your customers to have free parking PLEASE FEEL FREE TO BE OPEN BEYOND 5 PM.
Seriously it would be AMAZING as someone who wants to go to dinner downtown to have a few shops I can check out while I am down there!
Then the downtown brz can even advertise free parking after 5 and drive a lot more customers downtown for evening spending.
(Continued from a Facebook Post: August 29, 2021l unedited)
Alright! Last night I posted a few ideas on how to help local businesses without cutting taxes!
But I'm not done! Let me know what you think of these ideas:
4. Encourage the formation of BIAs + streamline the process.
What's a BIA? It's a Business Improvement Area: and we have one that already exists in the city. You know it as the Downtown BRZ (Business Revitalization Zone). The BRZ was initially formed by interested business owners in the 1980s. Since then it has operated as an advocacy group for businesses in the downtown as well as a comarketing/promotion agency for the downtown. And it's done a great job so far advocating for programs in the Downtown!
What's interesting to me is that no other business districts have formed BIAs in Lethbridge. The BRZ stops at the downtown core. It doesn't work on behalf of any other areas. So why is it the only one?
On a related note: myself along with some amazing neighbouring businesses in the Warehouse District - Lethbridge are in the process of putting together another BIA so we can have a voice at the table when City Hall starts work on the Area Redevelopment Plan for the area between Stafford Drive S and 13th St S. I am very excited for this project as it's been something I have been advocating and working on for almost 4 years.
Even this though, will be restricted within a geographic boundary. Other businesses may be left out and should be encouraged to get their neighbours together to form a BIA of their own. It's remarkably simple and provides opportunities for more input in economic development services and the redevelopment of established areas.
It's your seat at the table. A collective voice. It's surprising to me that there isn't more cohesive organization between businesses and I wonder if there is an opportunity for some assistance from city hall. A lot of times it's just about helping people know where to start: as simple as a page on the website with a link to resources. (I will include one on my website tomorrow if any business owners want to take a peek. The website is hichabito.ca)
Enabling businesses to create BIAs and help them streamline the process with readily available data would go a LONG way towards economic stability in Lethbridge.
5. Encourage mixed-use Commercial/Resdential Redevelopment in all districts & promote density.
Lethbridge's building pattern isn't sustainable. It's actually extremely expensive and contributes to our high property taxes in the city. I don't understand why we haven't built more infills with commercial/residential mixes but I suspect our development pattern has to do with our zoning codes.
I love Lethbridge, but if you look at it objectively, anything built since approximately 1960s was planned and based on the idea that you would have, and use, a car.
This type of auto centric design is most evident in the neighborhoods on the west side and even though we know it's extremely inefficient from a design and planning perspective, it's still being allowed to happen because the master plans for these areas were approved years ago.
Lethbridge needs to make an about-face and start focusing on building economically sustainable and environmentally friendly neighborhoods. If you'd like to know what that looks like google "15 minute community" and there will be a host of articles to help you out.
Density means more customers. Walkability/active transportation means people are saving their gas money to spend at local shops. Invest in projects that have mixed use.
6. ENCOURAGE LOCAL INCREMENTAL DEVELOPMENT.
What is incremental development?
It's allowing small projects to catch a break at the municipal level. This is a policy project that eases the pain of setting up a small business.
Often, when small businesses try to start up in the city, City Hall quickly becomes a frustration and a hurdle. It's hard to tell what you need to do first, and there aren't any good resources to help entrepreneurs navigate City Hall in an efficient way. Yeah, all the permits might be available online, but if someone's never set up a business before it's hard to know where to go and what to do and who to talk to.
It's needless added stress.
City Council could ask the City Manager to set up a team within the development office to help entrepreneurs navigate these systems smoothly. Instead of a burden/block/hurdle/frustration/anxiety-attack-triggering-location, City Hall becomes a partner in the early success of local businesses to get open, and grow.
There you have it. In combo with yesterday's post, there are 6 proven ways the City can support small local businesses and keep our economy viable.
What do you think? Where are your concerns? How can I help?