Calgary Chamber mayoral debate mixes barbs with business

The Calgary Chamber hosted a mayoral debate focusing on the key issues of the 2021 municipal election, moderate by Dallas Flexhaug and Deborah Yedlin.

A mayoral debate with questions about the future of doing business in Calgary turned into a war of words between candidates very quickly on Wednesday night.

Ward 11 Coun. Jeromy Farkas had an early salvo during his opening remarks.

“Coun. Gondek will sit here and say that she is for business, but her entire record has been against business,” Farkas said just minutes into the debate.

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“Every step of the way, I’ve had a proven track record, acting on my convictions, speaking up — not just when it’s been easy to do so, but when it’s been hard to do so,” the Manning Centre alum said.

Farkas cited the “property tax revolt” in 2019, when Calgary businesses faced double-digit tax increases. Those prospective increases came when council shifted some of the tax burden after downtown property values saw double-digit decreases, pulling down city revenues.

Council ultimately dipped into reserves for multiple years of tax rebates and put caps on rate increases.

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The debate didn’t allow for rebuttal and Gondek largely resisted the urge to fire shots back at Farkas, a councillor who she’s traded barbs with in council chambers.

But following comments from Farkas saying “Calgary isn’t a racist city,” Gondek said the election was an opportunity to get “lived experience” into office.

“We have an opportunity in this election to elect individuals with lived experience so they can bring about the kind of change that we’re looking for in our city, so make sure you’re making wise choices about people that can represent you and implement anti-racist practices in this city to make us more inclusive and more welcoming,” Gondek said

The verbal sparring continued through to the closing remarks when Ward 6 Coun. Jeff Davison laid out what the next mayor will need to do while pointing out Farkas’ council voting record.

“It’s going to involve getting Calgarians to say yes to things, not say no 136 times,” Davison quipped.

Another line in the sand was between candidates sitting inside and outside of city council.

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Jan Damery pointed to the hollowness of Farkas’ promise of being for “change versus more of the same.”

“I find it curious listening to the three councillors about all of these things that they are actually now going to do, and they actually haven’t been able to act together in the last four years to address these (business) issues,” Damery said.

“Jeromy, you talk like you’re not even part of this council, which actually is a problem because you never in some sense have been fighting them every step of the way.”

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Brad Field also tried to position himself as a business leader that could come into city hall with a business-friendly vision.

“Under these three councillors, my commercial property taxes have gone up more than 50 per cent, without an increase in property value,” Field said.

“Mr Farkas’ vision is no longer than an election cycle, and Ms. Gondek’s and Mr. Davidson’s vision will continue to reach into your pockets for more tax money.”

Down to business

The Wednesday evening debate had pre-recorded questions from Calgary’s business community around five themes: talent, property tax, Calgary’s downtown, inclusive growth and equal opportunity, and making the city a great place to do business.

On talent, Farkas said policing and housing will help secure talent for companies.

Gondek said work in areas like clean tech can provide meaning for young professionals, who also are calling for amenities near their work that can be buttressed with public transit.

Damery’s plan included scaling post-secondary campuses downtown to feed a talent footprint and revitalize the area

Davison said the ready ability of a city to help a company scale talent is more important than taxes or leasing prices, messages he’s heard from companies over the past four years.

Field said a youth-fueled downtown could be created by partnering post-secondary institutions with local businesses.

Property tax problems

Gondek noted that she was the only member of council to ask in 2019 for the property tax split of the operating budget.

“That’s when we found out that the business community was carrying 55 per cent of the burden of the operating budget. That should tell you something.”

City council ended up moving the ratio to a 48-52 commercial-to-residential split on a motion she said she brought to council.

Farkas proposed a four-year tax freeze, one that’s received Jack Mintz’s endorsement.

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And Davison committed to a business tax reduction and residential tax freeze. He also said he took some credit for working with the province to attract larger film and television projects with a tax credit, replacing the previous grant program.

“It’s time we have somebody who can pick up the phone, not pick a fight on Twitter,” Davison said.

Damery said the downtown property values could be buoyed with a community revitalization levy.

Downtown blues

Gondek said the already-approved downtown revitalization strategy has already seen success with its office refurbishment incentive program fully-subscribed.

“We sent a strong signal that we were interested in our own future and that allowed the capital to flow,” she said.

Farkas said it’s “an embarrassment” that Calgary doesn’t have a downtown police station, saying safety needs to be addressed.

In September, the city launched a “safety hub” on Stephen Avenue, a space for police officers, transit officers and bylaw officers to work out of and serve the downtown community.

Farkas took another opportunity to take a shot at his fellow councillors and the office he seeks.

“It’s people who create jobs and city hall’s job should be to get out of the way and create an enabling environment,” he said. “But unfortunately the record of the city councillors every step of the way has been against business.”

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Davison pointed out that for the past five decades, the city’s downtown has borne most of the city’s tax burden, protecting residential taxpayers from large increases.

He claimed that his past term on council yielded the events centre, BMO Centre expansion, Arts Commons transformation, Green Line, and early work on the rail line between the airport to Banff through downtown, and that they’re all part of his vision to “contribute to place.”

Field seemed to agree that attractions like the BMO Centre, Arts Commons and Glenbow Museum will improve quality of life and attract people downtown, saying there’s a continued need to continue investing in those.

Open for business

Field, who said he’s the only member of the Chamber in the debate, said city businesses need a predictable tax model and removal of bureaucracy to operate better.

Davison said city hall needs to be more nimble to support businesses, citing the temporary patio permits set up during the pandemic.

“I’ve actually cut a lot of red tape in my time using the Business Advisory Committee at city hall, where we’ve removed more policy in the last two years than we have in the last 20,” he said.

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Gondek said the pandemic has required city administration to try new approaches to interacting with businesses, enabling a culture of looking outside the box of existing policy. She wants to push further in that direction.

“We have done things the same way for too long,” she said. “It’s time to let business and administration reinvent how we bring the city to a better process.”

Farkas highlighted his “one-for-one red tape reduction rule” that would give mandatory approvals within a time limit, unless conditions are met.

Damery proposed regulatory reform, “where we regulate the things we don’t want, and we regulate the things we do want.”

The trouble with third parties

Moments before the debate began, Farkas tweeted out that “union bosses are staging a takeover of city council with a $1.7 million war chest,” posting photos of third-party advertiser (TPA) Calgary’s Future ad spend on Facebook and fundraising disclosures from 2019 and 2020 — disclosures that are on the Elections Calgary website.

He then linked to a donation page for his own campaign.

Lead Calgary, a TPA that lists Manning Centre alum William McBeath as its chief financial officer but has not disclosed its donor lists, recently endorsed Farkas for mayor.

“Calgary’s election finance rules are broken, and they need fixing today,” Farkas said.

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Third-party advertisers finally became provincially regulated in 2018, but it wasn’t until 2020 that a $30,000 cap per person per TPA was put in place.

After the debate, Davison weighed in on Twitter.

“Is anyone surprised? Days from the election we learn that both Jyoti Gondek and Jeromy Farkas are receiving major financial support from TPAs,” the Ward 6 councillor wrote.

Davison has been under scrutiny for his relationship with TPA Calgary Tomorrow, first for a golf fundraiser and recently with complaints filed by the Damery campaign who say the TPA is colluding with Davison by paying for his campaign signage.

Elections Alberta has not confirmed whether those complaints have been filed and does not comment on investigations.

Advance polling runs through Oct. 10, with election day on Oct. 18.

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