There were more than a few sparks flying at the all candidates night at the Puslinch Community Centre here on Oct. 8.
Opening salvos started with speeches by both mayoral candidates – Dennis Lever, who currently serves as mayor, and Brad Whitcombe, who served as mayor prior to Lever.
“Four years ago Mr. Whitcombe stood here and told you all was well in Puslinch. You knew that wasn’t true.”
Lever said at that time he told residents there was a better way and that he could fix the problems.
“I have done just that. You elected me on that promise and the promise has been kept,” said Lever.
“Yet Mr. Whitcombe is back and he wants Puslinch to go back to the way it used to be.”
Lever told members of the audience “you are smarter than that.” He suggested when problems like huge tax increases and sloppy administration are fixed, “it would be like shooting yourself in the foot” to go back.
Lever said when Whitcombe was mayor he charged bar tabs and expensive lunches and dinners.
“It came out of your tax dollars,” said Lever, adding Whitcombe was a big tipper as well.
“He once tipped $150 on a $540 dinner. Who leaves a 27 per cent tip? It was either bad math or he just didn’t care,” Lever stated. “They weren’t his dollars, they were yours.”
Lever was also concerned with claims made that administrative costs have increased by 40%.
“Actually, they increased by 42% – but that was from 2006 to 2010 while [Whitcombe] was the mayor,” he said.
Lever admitted during his own term costs have increased by 26% – including adding a treasurer.
“Clarity has characterized my term. All council expenses are now posted online. We are a provincial leader with this standard of transparency – we have nothing to hide,” said Lever.
He said Puslinch still faces major challenges that require qualified leadership.
“Before we jump into anything, we are going to figure our how we are going to pay for improvements – without the painful tax increases of the Whitcombe years,” Lever said.
“I have proven I can do this job well, Mr. Whitcombe has proven he could not. It’s that simple.”
Lever contended the township has never been in such good shape – and assuming that is what people want, it will get even better if he is re-elected.
Whitcombe started off speaking about respect for the community.
“That is my commitment to you,” he said.
Whitcombe contended that when he left office in 2010 the tax levy for local purposes was $2.8 million, “today the levy is $3.2 million.”
“For the first time in the history of Puslinch, the local levy has topped the $3 million mark.”
He said residents deserve to be respected and informed, not scared with alarmist propaganda.
“You deserve leadership not excuses,” said Whitcombe.
He noted the community has been “tied up in red tape and punitive bylaws, and subjected to a near 40% increase in administrative costs, legal bills that could choke a horse … and I’m still being blamed for it.”
Whitcombe asked what there was to show for the extra 30% increase in taxation.
“I left with a recreation centre and a new library, this round there is an undeveloped Sports field, washrooms [at the community centre] which were on the books when I was here and a second rate parquet floor,” he said.
Whitcombe added with the rate of growth the township is experiencing residents should be reaping some benefits but instead are being asked for more of their hard-earned money, while the industry gets a 10-year forgiveness of a half-million dollars.
“Strong leadership shouldn’t cost you more,” he told the crowd.
Whitcombe said he has represented residents locally, provincially and nationally for over 20 years “and I never drew the salary the current mayor enjoys.”
Whitcombe said, “It didn’t cost you more under my leadership but it will cost us all dearly if we continue down this current path.”
“This government has turned its back on our community and the mayor has dropped the ball on Highway 6 (the Morriston bypass), the Big Lake and our heritage settlements.”
Whitcombe claimed the current mayor has upped speed limits, quadrupled secret meetings and cut community funding.
“In short, he has held our community in disdain,” he said.
Whitcombe argued that Puslinch residents deserve more respect and added he still continues his work for the community through his involvement in various local groups.
“Together let’s invest in our future. It’s time to take back our community,” he said.
Bulmer said there is nothing more humbling than campaigning for election.
“And there is nothing like the tough questions you face at the door to keep me on my toes,” he said.
“And as tough as it has been to deal with questions on ballooning bureaucracy or a code of conduct that council seems to ignore, having those conversations has confirmed that our residents are capable of having thoughtful conversations about a variety of topics.”
He talked about life after gravel in Puslinch which involves looking at future uses of gravel pits once the extraction ends. For others, the concern seems to be that when gravel stops being extracted, money stops coming to the township.
Bulmer proposed a levy for a stabilization fund to minimize that impact.
Another challenge, Bulmer said, is the unique situation of living in the “middle of everywhere.”
“No matter where I go in the township, residents are facing increasing levels of traffic, which creates an upwards pressure on the roads budget, but with families on the road, creates legitimate concerns about traffic speeds and safety,” he said.
Bulmer was equally quick to state that living in the middle of everywhere allows the township to promote itself as a destination spot for both people and investment.
“I think we should treat our community groups with the respect they have earned,” he said. “They not only deliver most of the programs we enjoy, they have also built, maintained or raised the funds to pay for just about every facility.”
Fielding was before the audience seeking a fourth term on Puslinch council.
“I care deeply about Puslinch and its residents,” she said, adding she wants to continue to be a strong and passionate voice at the council table.
“I am not afraid to stand up and state a divergent opinion or to advocate what is best for the ordinary citizen. We live in a democracy and for that to work we need a credible opposition.”
That should be welcomed and accepted by a leader, not met with constant scorn, Fielding said.
“I keep hearing over and over from citizens during this council term that a lot of our community spirit has been lost,” she added.
Fielding too spoke of the number of closed council sessions during the current term and said she is in the unique position of being at closed meetings during the current and previous term of council.
Fielding too is concerned that it seems residents’ concerns of speed limit increases appear to be falling on deaf ears.
She was also concerned that an important issue such as the Morriston bypass appears to be shrouded in secrecy.
Fielding would like to see the addition of a mayor’s report to inform council of the activities at the county level of government.
“I will continue to fight for transparency and accountability,” she said, adding she wants to bring back citizen-centred government.
Makinson, who noted her name was Daina, “like in dynamite,” said she was pleased to be able to connect with the audience that night.
“I am a volunteer and deeply engaged with the community for a number of years with that work.”
She explained her involvement in the community speaks volumes to her passion for Puslinch and how much she cares for the community.
“I am a business person and an entrepreneur,” she added.
After retiring from a 30-year career as a retail buyer, where all her time was spent understanding customer needs and delivering results, she began her own business and today that is a thriving venture.
“Starting your own business from scratch by yourself in an industry that doesn’t exist is not for the faint of heart,” she said.
As a resident and property owner in Puslinch, she said shares their concerns.
“I want to keep Puslinch an affordable place to live for everyone without sacrificing our community and services,” she said. “I recognize that council must act together as a team and must do everything they can to minimize the impact on taxes, find sources of funding and plan for the future.”
Tuck shared with the audience comments he has heard from around the community. He said he did not plan to detail comments on Highway 6, taxation, garbage pickup, a second fire house, the Optimist Recreation Centre, Puslinch Lake, town staffing, speed enforcement and so much more.
“I am aware of these challenges and encourage more discussion and questions,” he said, noting he wanted to speak instead on how these challenges should be addressed.
“Most people feel their voices are not being heard within council. Communication in our community is vital,” he said. “Our duty as a council is to listen.”
Tuck is excited about the potential offered through the township’s new website. But for those not good with technology – “Are you going to wait for four years for someone to knock on your door?”
Tuck said he likes talking to people and being out in the community.
“I think that is the best way to get honest answers and views.”
Tuck also believed council members need to be accountable more than just every four years.
He contended Puslinch is a vastly different demographic community and wants to provide balance.
“We have to prioritize and balance all concerns. I’m all for lower taxes, but not at the cost of destroying our community,” he said.
He also did not favour raising taxes, which he believed would drive middle income families out of the community.
“The council we elect needs to work together and put egos and agendas aside,” he said.
Roth said when he was elected in 2010 he ran on a platform of fiscal restraint, transparency and honesty.
“Over the past four years our taxes have only increased five per cent compared to the 40% increase in the prior four years,” Roth said, attributing lower increases since 2010 to fiscal restraint and planning.
Long-term planning is in place to meet future needs and the township has provided to the coalition to keep the Highway 6 bypass on the provincial agenda.
He said there is now a strategic budgeting process which compares monthly figures to the overall annual budget estimates, which “keeps us on track to control expenditures.”
He noted staff wage reviews are based on performance and increases more comparable to the private sector and cost of living. He added the township office is now open over lunch hour to better serve taxpayers.
Roth added a code of ethics is now in place.
“During my four years on council I have attended numerous county council sessions and committee meetings.”
Elected township officials “must keep the ratepayers in mind and make decisions using a commonsense approach.” He advocated work to increase the township’s commercial and industrial tax base, in addition to lobbying for high levies for aggregate extraction.
“Going forward there is a lot of work to do as a result of provincial funding cuts. We need a mayor and council to ensure a sustainable future and not make empty promises,” said Roth. “We need to be innovative and forward thinking to continue with lower tax increases.”
“I am ready, willing and able to continue as your Puslinch Township councillor and be an advocate for your concerns,” Stokley said.
He takes pride in having lived for over 38 years in the township.
“I believe my experience in my past career as a high school vice principal is a positive asset.”
Stokley stated he is a good communicator, listener and responsible planner for budgets.
“I am proud of my personal initiatives and many positive accomplishments at council.”
During that time he has at one time chaired each of the council committees and chaired the well protection committee for the past four years. He was also a member of the active transportation steering committee with Wellington County and a council representative for the Guelph Water Supply Master Plan.
Stokley is equally proud of council’s efforts to move the Highway 6 bypass forward.
He noted other initiatives include the development of a five-year plan to move capital improvement projects forward and a plan for capital reserves.
Stokley said he’d just completed his third week of knocking on doors and talking to local residents.
“My objective – to bicycle and walk the township. My goal – to talk to as many residents as possible. I wanted people to know I would go to great lengths to hear their concerns.”
When asked if he can make a difference, Stokley said, “yes. I’m not willing to accept, bend or be influenced by outside pressures.”
As a current member of council, Stokley said he is always ready to ask the hard questions. He also wanted residents to know he has no set alliances on council.
“I support the residents and the candidates you support,” he said.
He added council needs to work as a team to support the needs of its residents.
County council Ward 7
Johnson said he believes in the need for an honest, open, transparent and accountable councillor.
He said councillors need to be fiscally responsible and willing to go to bat to protect the environment and water resources. He added councillors cannot be afraid to ask the hard questions when necessary.
“I believe politicians should run on their entire record,” he said.
Johnson then claimed his opponent was trying hard to have residents forget half of his voting record in Puslinch.
Johnson contended that during McKay’s term as a Puslinch councillor McKay voted to increase taxes by 40 per cent in just four short years.
“I will come back to you in four years reporting to you on my entire record – not just the bits and pieces I think you would like to hear,” said Johnson.
He intended to fight to keep core service levels high while keeping taxes as low as possible.
“I understand that taxes are necessary to provide the services we need to make our communities great places to live.” However, he also said he believes tax increases should be either at or below the level of inflation.
“We have to work to make communities affordable to live in on an ongoing basis.” He maintained that a fresh perspective will always help to find efficiencies to keep taxes low without any loss of services.
Johnson said 63% of the Puslinch tax dollars go to Wellington County and he believes residents need to know the money is being spent wisely.
“I will always fight for what I believe is right,” he said. At the same time he added “there is no place for bickering and grudge holding in municipal politics.”
McKay, who said he was pleased to see the number of friends and neighbours at the meeting, noted he and his wife have been residents of Puslinch for the past 30 years and are very much a part of the community.
McKay pointed to the active involvement in growing the community through their farm, connecting with service clubs and organizations, and service on both township and county council.
“For the past eight years as both a township and county councillor you have put your trust in me and I have delivered,” said McKay.
“I proudly stand by my record.”
As a county councillor, McKay has chaired the waste services committee and attended various other committee meetings.
He too noted 63% of total tax dollars goes to the county “and you deserve to have an experienced, knowledgeable and accountable representative.”
“Whom better than a farmer and Scotsman to handle your tax dollars?” McKay asked.
During the past four years, McKay said the county has kept increases to its portion of the tax bill at, or near, inflation while investing in the infrastructure of Wellington County and making plans for the future.
If elected, McKay said he intends to continue to develop partnerships, aim for controlled growth while maintaining the heritage and environment, sustain services at reasonable costs, be fiscally responsible and to follow best business management practices.