Penticton Herald 2015 interview

2015 was the first full year for the new city council as the seven members were elected in November 2014. In many ways it’s been a tough year for the mayor and council.

In his annual new year’s interviews with public officials, Herald editor James Miller spoke one-on-one with Mayor Andrew Jakubeit on Dec. 30 about the past year and what challenges lie ahead. Questions were not provided ahead of time.

 

HERALD: What do we have to look forward to over the next 12 months in Penticton?

JAKUBEIT: In 2016 we need to brand ourselves as a ‘Year of Partnerships.’ Moving forward, that’s where we’re really going to get some success, whether that’s with the private sector, provincial or federal governments, our non-profit and faith-based groups, and more importantly, the Penticton Indian Band. Some of our successes in 2015 were pillars of economic development, tourism development and affordable housing and those are our primary focuses in 2016.  We have the federal government talking about infrastructure funding — we have aging infrastructure below ground and 23 facilities projected at about $40 million in repairs or maintenance over the next 10 years. That doesn’t happen without partnerships coming aboard.

The great success for 2016 is with the hospital starting up. This is a $325 million project that will create jobs. It’s also an example of private partnership where people in the community are helping the government deliver something that’s more sustainable and realistic and with the ability to fund it.

The Penticton Indian Band is probably our biggest opportunity because of economic development opportunities. We want to see that bridge become a “Bridge to Somewhere” whether that’s retail development to help stop the flow of dollars heading north (or) light industry and commercial so there’s more jobs coming, that will attract more people and families to come here. When you have more people you have more kids to help fill schools and help grow our community.  We have to focus on growing our community and through partnerships we’ve had an easier time dealing with issues of the day.

 

HERALD: On a positive note, there’s going to be a lot of construction this  year.

JAKUBEIT: Our stats for 2015 are up over 2014 and I think in 2016 you’re going to see some massive projects. Driving around you now see duplexes and multi-family (construction). You look to the airport and you see Skaha Hills and more milestones. If you go up Duncan you’ll see Sendero Canyon and a bunch of houses there.  And you’re going to have the hospital start with $325 million — that’s big and it’s a three-year building project. We’re going to have the casino relocation which is a $25- million project and the Lakeside (Resort) has announced they’re going to spend $12 million for an expansion. Once the casino leaves (its present location), there will be another $2 million on convention upgrades and hopefully from the hospitality side of things this gets some of the hoteliers and moteliers to do some improvements to their properties.  That’s pretty exciting to see jobs and construction and for people up north, who may have lost their jobs there, they have some good-paying opportunities for them and their families for the next couple years in Penticton.

 

HERALD: What do you see as Council’s greatest accomplishment in its first year?

JAKUBEIT: We had three task forces and each pillar had a success.

Affordable housing. We had the province and BC Housing announce that we’re going to have 70 affordable housing units coming for 2016. They’re now going through RFP (request for proposals) and they’re going to break ground in the spring.

Tourism. Our task force had both hospitality and tourism (officials) sitting in the same room and talking about working together and committing verbally to how they can have one society or one voice. We’re looking at that for this spring.

Economic development. We’re ranked the No. 2 entrepreneurial city. We just talked about construction opportunities with the hospital and casino and the construction business in general has been up in 2015 and even higher in 2016.  Those are all sorts of success. It equates back to our task forces in the mandate that we want to see the city grow and develop.

Our mantra was “a strong economy is going to lead to a strong community.”

 

HERALD: Did Penticton achieve growth over the past year?

JAKUBEIT: Numbers are unknown at the moment but real estate is booming right now, construction is booming, I’m meeting people who have said they’ve just moved here and I think there are more people coming here. When we can get more accurate counts of our population stats, I think it will show our population has grown.

Our goal is to be more to the provincial level which has been around two per cent and in the last couple of years it’s been under one per cent here and that’s been problematic. What you see in the budget cycle is that we haven’t had that growth to create more revenues to ease the tax burden. In the past we’ve dealt with that by going into reserves and that’s not sustainable this year and we’re looking at a tax increase.

 

HERALD: Has any effort been made in the budgeting process to make some serious cuts to services?

JAKUBEIT: That’s one of the difficult things going through our budget. The community has an expectation of the services we provide.  We traditionally focus on where we can cut instead of where we can grow. We’re near the core. There’s not really much left to cut — we’re near the bone. We have tremendous faith in Eric Sorenson, our CAO, to guage the health of the community and make requirements as necessary to not just grow revenues but to gain efficiencies. We’re not utilizing our technologies, our computer system to free up some of our staff so that they’re not doing day-to-day routines which software could actually help alleviate and create some efficiencies.

 

HERALD: The assessments are going to change. You’re budgeting with 2015 numbers and assessments almost always go up. Why budget with unknown figures?

JAKUBEIT: Our fiscal year is a calendar year so we try and get a budget in place that’s near the actual year. We know the difference between the revenue coming in and all our expenses and what we’re going to have to go to the community for whether it’s to increase taxes or dip into the reserves. If we know, that BC Assessment says assessments are going to go up 10 per cent, we factor that into the equation. Once that’s finally determined it affects our mill rate.

 

HERALD: What are your thoughts on possible school closures in Penticton?

JAKUBEIT: It’s a reality that all levels of government are trying to cope with — being efficient. It speaks to the fact that our community needs to grow. If you don’t have growth you don’t have families and you don’t have kids going to school. From the school board’s perspective, if a building is only utilizing 40, 50 or 60 per cent of its space, is that efficient use of space?

It’s going to be a difficult decision for them to make. We’re concerned as well because we have shared facilities at some schools with sports fields. They’re trying to be responsible to the community and the dollars they have to spend and how they can be more efficient.

A lot of people don’t like change.  A lot to people realize they’ll need to close a school but “not mine — not in my neighbourhood.” Penticton is small enough that if your child has to go an extra three or four blocks to the next-nearest facility, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s an easier adjustment.

 

HERALD: Has anyone on Council or staff discussed what can be done to help Syrian refugees relocate here?

JAKUBEIT: Not really. Interior Health has facilitated some phone conversations with Valley mayors about the whole refugee process (which Jakubeit participated in). Information has been very slow to date.  It’s really been private organizations that have been stepping up to the forefront. The South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services have been working and are trying to establish some refugees in Naramata and some in Oliver and Summerland. Nobody has come to the city yet and said “we have two or three families to locate.” It’s still a work in progress and unfortunately there has been limited information from the province and federal government in terms of programming, commitments and expectations of municipalities.  We’re open. I’d  like to think the Immigrant Services has really stepped up in trying to engage and integrate the various immigrants to our community and make them feel welcome.

 

HERALD: 2015 was a rough year for council with several issues. Looking back if you were to give a letter grade for council’s performance, what would it be?

JAKUBEIT: I’d probably give ourselves a B. It’s difficult because you’re only as good as your last vote. Support is fickle and we were very pro-active in taking on some thorny issues such as Three Mile Beach and public nudity, where we tried to come to some resolve for the beach-going community and the neighbourhood.  Obviously the big issue of the year was Skaha Park and despite some people in the community not liking it, we’ve had other people say “good for you for trying to get more for families and continuing with waterfront enhancement.”

That’s not easy to go in that direction. When you take emotions out of the equation, Council has done a good job of looking at all perspectives when making decisions on the issue or opportunity of the day.

I take strength in the diversity of our council. We all get along despite having differences in opinions; we respect each other’s opinions. We have a good team on council and a good senior staff group.

 

HERALD: Would you agree with me that more people are opposed to the Skaha project than are in favour.

JAKUBEIT: I think the opposition has been more vocal and more personalized in their attacks against council or towards those who support it to the point where people are very leery to go on social media and letters to the editor to support something because they get attacked personally.

That’s why it’s been difficult to guage. It’s ongoing, even this week there are letters to the editor about Skaha Park.  I wouldn’t go on record to say the support is at this level or that level.

 

HERALD: Would a referendum or a certified opinion poll, similar to what was done for the prison, not settle the issue?

JAKUBEIT: No, I think a referendum or an opinion poll, they’re non-binding. If it was 55/45 regardless of the split, you’re going to have one party say it’s not a real vote.  What I found frustrating is in talking to people there is a lot of misinformation. “You’re pulling down every tree in park.” It’s actually two or three trees. “You’re going to charge to go swimming in the lake.” That’s never been said.

They are so entrenched in their opinion and it’s usually what they heard around the water cooler or from their neighbour. You’d think the mayor of the city would have a better idea than their neighbour would. That’s frustrating.

I will have staff meet with the developer in January to gauge where they are with the project. Do they want to continue or modify or shelve any aspects of it? We want to get a clearer picture of their direction. This has been a developer’s initiative and they have been sitting on the sidelines and in the background. We’d like to have them get re-engaged and see where they stand with the project.

 

HERALD: Another contentious issue has been the firefighters. Why is the City willing to challenge an arbitrated settlement in court?

JAKUBEIT: It’s a challenge to move forward. The issue is the ability to deal with the three to five per cent increases that they get annually compared with one to two per cent that our other bargaining units get.  There’s the inability to use local factors. Everything’s tied into the Lower Mainland, where the cost of living is significantly higher than the Okanagan and that’s never been used as a negotiating point. The whole purpose of arbitration is not to revisit the past but to look at our future and say, it’s not sustainable.  Our growth rate is under one per cent. Sooner or later something has to give and it’s difficult for long-term financing if every year they’re going up five per cent. Other bargaining units will ask, “If they’re getting three to five per cent, why aren’t we?” We’re trying to get the arbitrator or province to look at all levels of the Fire Measures Act and use local conditions in negotiating a deal.

 

HERALD: We’re facing a five per cent tax hike this coming year yet council is committing $500,000 on a light canopy for the 100 block of Main Street.

JAKUBEIT: The budget isn’t finalized and is still subject to change and on the 11th (of January) we will revisit it again. Until it’s finalized, elements can be revisited. It was a 4-3 vote of council; some believe it’s a one-time expense. It is coming out of our capital budget — not our operating budget and I think in fairness until we have the acknowledgement of what our grant levels are, that might dictate how we continue with downtown revitalization.  Downtown revitalization is a priority because we have to deal with the aging infrastructure below and I think people understood that part. I see why people are concerned with your question. Could we spend $500,000 better or elsewhere? And it was a tough decision council had to make. I was one of the ones who voted against it. Stay tuned I guess.

 

HERALD: You graded council’s first year as a B. Looking back, what would you do differently, if you could?

JAKUBEIT: With the Skaha Park, this was a developer initiative and not a City one. With something such as the public walkway, we did public engagement over the course of a year. The public engagement the developer did was over 30 days. We did not have a staff member present there to validate some of the assertions by the developer or to answer questions. If it was a longer engagement period people would have had more time to get the proper information and have more of a comfort level with what’s happening or not happening and more time to formulate their opinion on that. Maybe start with marina and restaurant so people could see that and then a year later for something else. See what the mood of the community is.

 

HERALD: What goals do you have for economic development?

JAKUBEIT: There are four. Partnerships, as we’ve already spoken about. Training centres, whether they’re sports-related like hockey academy or off-shoots of programs for the college, Emily Carr or some of the arts coming here. Niche manufacturing...to see manufacturing grow. Technology, for more technology-based companies to come here.

Tangible growth and vibrancy doesn’t equate to a population level. We want our community to be able to enjoy it here instead of doing whatever they can to get by. We want people to enjoy living here and be able to go for dinner, go to the movies, to see the wineries and tourist attractions. We want them to be able to live (rather) than working to live.

 

HERALD: What goals do you have for tourism?

JAKUBEIT: It starts with having one voice, one body. We have a tremendous opportunity with Go Media which came here. There were travel writers from around the world and the weather co-operated. Organizers hit it out of the park. It was more people coming to Penticton. Tourism is a foot in the door to tell people you should consider moving here, consider investing here.