Downtown livability and safety dominated questions put to council hopefuls at the Terrace All Candidates Forum Wednesday night.
Roughly 100 people gathered in the R.E.M. Lee Theatre to hear from the eight candidates vying for six council seats in the Oct. 20 municipal election. While housing and addictions treatment also featured prominently the topics related back to vagrancy in the downtown area, making it clear this is an issue top of mind for Terrace voters.
“Policing is the largest cost in our budget,” said Terrace Mayor Carol Leclerc, “and we know our policing is maxed out.” Leclerc won her second term by acclamation and was given four minutes by the forum organizers to address Terrace voters. She reminded the audience council earlier this year requested approval from the province for three additional police officers for its Crime Prevention Unit, and recognized the problem with addictions, vagrancy and mental health in the community, vowing to continue lobbying the province for help.
“Housing is a provincial issue but we’ve lobbied hard to ensure the housing spectrum addresses the various needs in our community,” she said, referring to two projects aimed at getting people off the street and better positioned for treatment as needed.
Vying for city council are Jessica McCallum Miller, Martin Holzbauer, Evan Ramsay and David Try against incumbents Sean Bujtas, Lynne Christiansen, James Cordeiro and Brian Downie.
James Cordeiro also recognized strides to secure low-income housing and took a hard approach to the situation on the streets.
“There are some major challenges ahead, and I think council has to make it a priority to restore safety and decency to our downtown,” Cordeiro said. “Working by increasing our bylaw presence and enforcement, implementing recommendations from the safety needle task force and sending a clear message that unwelcome behaviour in our downtown will not be ignored.”
A Statistics Canada report this year identified Terrace as having the highest crime rates among other small towns in B.C. The figures stemmed largely from vagrancy, disturbance and property crime.
Related to the topic, audience members wanted to know what candidates would do about dirty needles and other drug paraphernalia found in city parks and doorways. The issue has grown in urgency the past few months as the discoveries are quickly shared across social media. The city has responded by forming a Drug Needle Task Force to explore safe-disposal sites and the possibility of a safe-injection site. Their report is expected in the coming weeks.
“I’ve had a number of people approach me on this topic,” said Jessica McCallum-Miller, noting it’s not an issue exclusive to Terrace. “One of the biggest things we need to focus on in our community is social funding and services. We do need a detox centre and we have needed one for some time. We can also increase safe needle disposal in our community as well.”
When asked by the media panel if a drug treatment facility should be a priority for Terrace, David Try said it’s more a public health issue than legislative. However he did acknowledge the need. “The facilities available in Terrace, in terms of detox, are limited at best. Sending someone to the detox in Prince George is not a successful operation. We do need more facilities here.”
Addressing the impacts on downtown businesses, Evan Ramsay, who lives downtown, said he’s spoken with both business owners and the homeless for a broad understanding of where city initiatives have succeeded and where improvements can be made. He argued it may not be a legislative issue, but in the same spirit that Terrace lobbied for a hospital, so too can it lobby for a treatment facility.
“We do have detox services in Terrace, many people don’t know about it, but the homeless do. What they don’t have is a rehab, the ability to rehabilitate back into the community. They fall back into their original peer groups.
“A facility that allows us to break that, and introduce new positive peer groups is the best way to [help them] achieve a quality life and gainful employment.”
Sean Bujtas reminded the audience council has been lobbying for such a service for years. “It’s a very important thing. It’s needed. But the city cannot pay for it. Council has not been successful at this and we need to start partnering with our regional areas, whether it’s the Kitsumkalum, Nisga’a, Kitimat, Prince Rupert, the Haisla—we all need to all come together, lobby the government together to get the detox facility in the Northwest. I don’t know which community should have it, but it needs to be closer than Prince George.”
Asked what can be done to improve the livability of the downtown area, Lynne Christiansen agreed the city needs to come down harder on bad behaviour.
“[But] at the same time we are a compassionate community,” she said. “It offers so much…for people who are facing a difficult time on the street. But we have to think of the businesses as well. They want to make a good downtown for us and they put up with a lot of negative stuff they just shouldn’t have to put up with.”
In attracting new business to downtown, Martin Holzbauer said the red tape at city hall also needs attention. “I’ve heard from some businesses who have had not-so-positive experiences when they’ve tried to improve their business, but the [process] made it difficult for them.”
Bringing the conversation back to problems on the streets, an audience member asked Cordeiro directly if he would support a night-shift bylaw officer in the downtown seven days a week.
“I think it’s important for the city to increase bylaw enforcement in a measured way to make sure we’re using those people most effectively. Foremost we need more bylaw officers during the day when people are more likely to be using the downtown.”
He added the Terrace Downtown Improvement Association has funding of $160,000 a year which they could tap into for some private security in the area.
Brian Downie agreed that bylaw enforcement is one component to controlling the issues of downtown, but said the effort must go deeper to address root causes.
“This requires partnerships with social agencies and non-profits,” he said. “There’s a bigger picture here beyond bylaw enforcement. It’s not going to be a sustainable direction in the long term. We need more help.”
An audience member with a business on the 4500 block of Lakelse complained of harassment on the block from intoxicated persons and said she’s found human feces and vomit in her doorway. On at least one occasion a person was passed out in her doorway during business hours.
“That end of town is completely neglected…a shelter was placed a few blocks up and we were just left to deal with the consequences,” She wanted a greater police presence in the east side of the downtown area, to which it was acknowledged the conversation needs to involve a broader area.
The two-hour forum was moderated by Justin Kohlman from Coast Mountain College, and organized by a number of groups including The Terrace Standard, the Terrace and District Chamber of Commerce, Coast Mountain College, the Terrace Toastmasters, the Skeena Valley Rotary Club, Bell Media, CityWest Cable 10, CFNR, the BC Northern Real Estate Board and the REM Lee Theatre.
The media panel consisted of Brittany Gervais, Terrace Standard; Jeff Blagden, CFNR; and Marek Tkach, Bell Media.