Calgary mayoral hopefuls talk taxes, Green Line and downtown vacancy in top candidate forum

With nearly one month to go until the municipal election, Calgary's leading mayoral candidates sparred over taxes, transit and the task of filling the city's many vacant offices. 

In a forum hosted by the Calgary Real Estate Board (CREB) Tuesday morning, six of the 28 candidates currently registered for the mayoral election presented some of their platforms. 

Jan Damery, Jeff Davison, Jeromy Farkas, Brad Field, Jyoti Gondek and Grace Yan participated in the event, which CREB dubbed as a chance to "meet some of the top contenders."

TAX TALK 

The CREB forum wasn't a debate between candidates, it was a forum -- meaning each person was given a set amount of time to answer questions from the moderator. But that didn't stop some of the candidates from criticizing each other.

When asked how they would bridge the taxation gap caused by high downtown vacancy, several candidates singled out points their running mates have made. 

"We have simply lost revenue because the assessed value of our properties has gone down over time, yet the formula that we have with our provincial government for sharing those property taxes hasn't changed at all," said Gondek, who is the incumbent councillor for Ward 3.

"We need to be stronger as a city and we need a better deal with the provincial government."

Farkas, another sitting councillor representing Ward 11, took issue with that statement. 

"We cannot continue to keep pointing fingers at the province. City hall's budget is a problem of its own creation," he said. 

If elected as mayor, Farkas says he'd pitch a four-year tax freeze for residential and non-residential properties. He also used some of his time to dismiss any further talks of reallocating money from the Calgary police budget.

"I strongly reject this defund the police ideology. I believe that it's compounding some of the issues we're having around vacancy, safety in the downtown and its further eroding our taxation advantage," Farkas said. 

Davison, the third of three sitting councillors running for the mayor's chair, is also putting forward an idea for a tax change.

"We have to continue to reduce business taxes. I'm proposing that we move half a point over four years each and every year," he said.

"We have to be much more competitive and learn to compete where capital and talent are all very mobile."

If elected, Yan said she would work to build up the city's confidence in order to attract more businesses to Calgary. Field, who officially filed his candidacy papers nearly eight months ago, said revenue and taxation isn't the biggest issue of the city's budget. 

"I firmly believe we're not as bad of a revenue issue and it's more about a spending issue here in the city of Calgary, so I'd like to introduce a priority-based budgeting system," Field said.

An incentive for developers in the downtown core is one idea Damery pitched to deal with high vacancy rate in Calgary's core. 

"I've got very specific ideas about creating a community revitalization levy, very similar to how we actually reinvigorated the East Village, that can actually give the kickstart and jumpstart to having our developers and entrepreneurs in our city re-do this space," she said.

GREEN LINE

As expected, the CREB forum had a focus on housing and property, but candidates were also asked about their position on the Green Line LRT project and what they would do about ensuring it proceeds.

Gondek, Davison and Damery agreed the $5.5-billion project should be a priority for the next council. 

Farkas, who was the sole vote against the project moving forward last June, said the next mayor needs to rebuild relationships with the federal and provincial governments in order to proceed with the rest of the Green Line. 

Field questioned why the LRT project was an election issue in 2017 and is again one this year. He has concerns with how current council has handled the project, particularly the decision to tunnel under parts of downtown. 

Yan believes there should have been more engagement with the public on final plans for the route of the line. She also has concerns about the cost of the project. 

Calgary's municipal election is on Oct. 18.