Mayoral candidates come out swinging
By Bob Bruton, Barrie Examiner
The four-man race for Barrie’s next mayor was whittled down to three candidates, maybe two, at least on Wednesday night.
With Ray Mawhinney a no-show, incumbent Jeff Lehman and challengers Ram Faerber and Zachary Gillespie-Rogers debated at Edgehill Banquet Facility.
But it was Lehman and Faerber who went head-to-head most often, on a number of levels.
“Have you ever been to a city council meeting?” Lehman asked Faerber, a political newcomer.
“I don’t have to, I watch it on TV,” said Faerber.
The three candidates talked about topics ranging from affordable housing, urban sprawl and property taxes to a university for Barrie, waterfront development, attracting investments and the city’s financial state.
“We’re in big trouble,” said Faerber of city finances. “This mayor and people at city hall, in another four years you will see property taxes go up by 16%.”
Lehman said the only way to keep taxes reasonable is to control city expenditures, such as policing costs, legal fees, growth, etc.
“It’s never good enough just to criticize,” Lehman said, likely to Faerber. “You have to tell people how you will do it better.”
The blended (municipal/education) property tax increases for Barrie homeowners have been 2.63% in 2011, 3.03% in 2012, 3.3% in 2013 and 2.03% in 2014.
“Taxes are part of life. No one likes them,” said Gillespie-Rogers, also a political newcomer.
He said the city’s financial situation is OK.
“It’s in the right track,” Gillespie-Rogers said. “A lot of debt we have was created by the parking garage in the downtown. It’s a good investment.”
Faerber was the only one making promises Wednesday.
“I will reduce property taxes, by not giving away our money to developers,” he said. “Taxes are high throughout Barrie. I will freeze taxes for four years, to send a message we need it.”
Faerber predicted a 3.9% property tax increase next year if Lehman is re-elected.
“We are one of the highest-taxed cities in the world,” Faerber said.
Lehman said Barrie’s financial situation is good, but not great.
“That’s the result of growth not paying for growth,” noting his council has passed measures so that doesn’t happen in the next 20 years. “But more needs to be done.”
Barrie’s debt total is expected to be $302.3 million by the end of 2014, $307.4 million in 2015 and $316.2 million in 2016, before falling to $298 million in 2017 and continuing to descend.
Lehman said there have been 15,000 jobs created in Barrie during the last four years and that Barrie is the safest city in Canada. He also noted that this year’s property tax increase is the lowest in 14 year.
“But elections are about looking ahead,” he said, noting his priorities are jobs, the economy, fiscal responsibility and affordable housing.
“We have some of the highest rents in the country and too many people are being left behind,” Lehman said.
“We should make developers have 20% of their housing as affordable housing,” said Gillespie-Rogers. “If you can’t afford to live in Barrie, you can’t afford to work in Barrie or go to university in Barrie.”
“All we have to do is re-zone the whole city, allow people to build two-plexes,” Faerber said.
And Barrie Transit was an inevitable topic.
“We have struggled to get it right,” Lehman said, “But now we have the buses running on time.”
“Transit is a failure in this city,” he said. “It can’t take people from A to B. The buses are running empty. We need to have smaller shuttle buses, and there should be free transit for a year.”
Gillespie-Rogers said there need to be more bike lanes, to help people get to the buses.
He also received the largest ovation of the night.
“I don’t mind if you don’t vote for me,” he said. “I’d rather you vote for someone else than not vote.”
Gillespie-Rogers is a 19-year-old trades worker who has lived in Barrie for a decade; in the winter, he works in snow removal, and in the warmer weather, in landscape design and construction. He has no experience in politics, but has said he’s receiving training to be a politician, and has no affiliation with any political party.
Faerber, 54, owns and manages his own small Barrie business, Rams Miracle – which sells carpet and rugs, and does recycling. He has lived in Barrie for 12 years, is married with four children and coaches minor baseball – but has no experience in politics either.
Lehman is finishing his first term as Barrie mayor (2010-2014); he had four years experience as the downtown Barrie councillor (2006-2010).
While Mawhinney didn’t attend Wednesday’s debate, he did send a written statement, saying his campaign would rely solely on social media.
“Debates can be an amusing, mud-flinging fiasco,” Mawhinney said in his statement, which was read aloud.
He has also declined an invitation to be interviewed by the Examiner. Mawhinney filed his nomination papers at 1:51 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 12, nine minutes before nominations closed.
Wednesday’s debate was hosted by the Greater Barrie Chamber of Commerce.
Voting for the city’s municipal election begins Oct. 11, continues Oct. 21-25 and finishes up Oct. 27.