What might have been a year of change for Brandon municipal politics became a firm establishment of the status quo.
The 2018 city election in Brandon saw just 16.86 per cent of eligible voters turn out to cast a ballot. With the mayor and two councillors elected by acclamation, races were held in eight of 10 wards, two of which were guaranteed new representatives when Ward 4 - University councillor Jeff Harwood and Ward 6 - South Centre councillor Lonnie Patterson decided to step aside.
Ultimately, the elected individuals in these two wards – Shaun Cameron in Ward 4 and Bruce Luebke in Ward 6 – were the only two new faces entering Brandon’s council chambers for the next term. The remaining six incumbents were returned to council in their respective wards.
In a year-end analysis of 2018, Mayor Rick Chrest suggested the election results were, in part, due to what he sees as a successful term brought about by a group of collegial, productive members of the city’s administration.
“We returned nine out of 11 members and we have two new ones. We got a poor voter turnout, but we take from that that the electorate gave myself and council a fairly reasonable seal of approval. Everybody who wanted their job back got their job back and the two who left chose to move on,” Chrest told the Westman Journal. “We’re still not happy with the low voter turnout, but people tend not to rise up when they’re happy, but will make changes when they are unhappy.”
The mayor noted that low participation in the election does not suggest residents are apathetic about what’s going on in the city. Local volunteers, organizations and business leaders have “put their shoulder to the wheel. It’s not all on the mayor and council,” he said.
“We have an extremely active and engaged community where everybody is working on situations themselves."
Chrest suggested that the city had a productive year through 2018. Among the highlights was the beginning of a wide-ranging re-assessment of Brandon’s recreational facilities and programming. Meanwhile, work on the Valleyview Community Centre recreation hub began, is roughly 90 per cent completed and should be in operation this summer.
He also mentioned the continued development of Brandon’s downtown core, specifically noting the refurbishment of the historic Bass Building on 10th Street as an example of the commercial rejuvenation of the area by the private sector. Looking ahead, the restructuring of downtown Brandon will continue with Brandon University’s plans to develop residential facilities, instructional space and business areas.
Another accomplishment Chrest mentioned was the progress made on a condominium project in development along the Wheat City Golf Course. The city put out a call for proposals on the project two years ago and a developer has been chosen. The entire venture will include the construction of about 60 condominium units and some commercial space alongside the expansion of the curling rink, the establishment of a skating rink and an improvement to the restaurant associated with the recreational facility.
The Wheat City Golf Course covers an area that was previously flooded by the Assiniboine River on almost an annual basis. An improved dike system has been established to make development in the area sustainable.
“We now have a good program at no cost to taxpayers that will generate more development and more tax revenue in the long run,” Chrest said about the Wheat City Golf Course initiative.
“We also concluded negotiations on our first urban reserve with the Gambler First Nation on the North Hill. Hopefully, there will be work on the project itself (in 2019), but we had very cooperative and amicable negotiations to achieve that and brought a good posture to the city of Brandon in terms of its willingness to work with First Nation opportunities in our community.”
Drugs took a prioritized position on the city’s agenda; both legal and illicit.
The recreational use of cannabis became legal in October. The city prepared for the change in law through the preceding year, dealing with zoning, bylaw and consumption regulations. Two retail cannabis outlets have opened in the city with one more scheduled to open this spring.
Meanwhile, Brandon is one of hundreds of city’s across the country currently in the midst of a crisis involving methamphetamine. Besides the danger the drug can do to an individual, non-users become victims through an increase in break and enters, theft and other minor property crimes committed by those suffering from an addiction that needs to be funded in some way.
The city has been attempting to stem the negative impact of the methamphetamine issue by developing informational resources to residents outlining its danger. This includes the mayor’s own “NEO (Not Even Once)" Youth Addictions Program which ran in Brandon School Division facilities through 2018.
The city also expanded the Brandon Police Service to look at both the trafficking of methamphetamine and the crimes that seem to follow the drug’s abuse.
“Meth has a lot of undesirable consequences. It’s one of the largest addictions and it’s messing up relationships with families,” Chrest said. “The other thing it’s done is fuelled additional crime. It’s smaller, petty crime, but it’s extremely pervasive nonetheless.”
The mayor noted that increased law enforcement surrounding the issue will continue, with a closer look at it as the city enters its 2019 municipal budget discussions, which are scheduled to begin shortly.
Chrest said council will continue to do its best to hold the line on tax increases through its budget talks, but admitted doing so has become more difficult. In past, the city has generally attempted to keep any increase well below the level of inflation.
“Council has a record of really paying attention to fiscal scenarios and yet it will get more and more difficult with areas of provincial and federal funding that has been frozen for several years and costs continue to rise,” he said. “We’ve had to try to be creative to backfill the difference, but you can’t do that forever. Nevertheless, we’ll try to keep tax increases as minimal as they have been.”
Finally, Chrest said economic development will be a priority moving into 2019, particularly with the provincial government putting the issue on the forefront of their agenda as well.
“We will be in good alignment with the province and we’re hopeful that the collective efforts will continue to enhance economic development in our area,” he said.