Amidst debates about how to tackle Calgary's lingering financial troubles, two of the three leading mayoral candidates also took time to trade barbs at the Palace Theatre on Monday.
The Calgary Chamber of Commerce chose to only host Andre Chabot, Naheed Nenshi and Bill Smith, based on recent polls that indicate the three are the leading contenders for the mayor's chair.
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Calgarians will vote for the mayor, councillors and school trustees on October 16.
The trio were peppered with questions about the business climate in the city, with particular focus on business property tax rates, making it easier for businesses to operate or relocate to the city and whether an entertainment district with an arena at its heart is critical for Calgary.
Nenshi spent most of his time defending the progress the city has made while he's been mayor, touting a $45 million fund created to help businesses outside the downtown core facing big tax increases, as well as an initiative to cut red tape and budget savings that last year totalled $325 million.
Smith, who a recent poll suggested was leading Nenshi in the race, largely avoided specifics in outlining his plans but criticized how the city has managed its spending.
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"I just really think that we need to be more efficient and we need to strive to keep those increases to smart spending, as the Chamber says, to the rate of inflation and the rate of growth," said Smith, referencing the organization's wish to see spending tied to inflation and population.
Longtime councillor Andre Chabot touted his idea to create a long-term tax deferral account that he says would ease the pain on businesses struggling with a tax shift away from the downtown core toward businesses outside the inner city.
He says his plan would spread the increases out over years and could lead to a reduction in the overall impact if the downtown picks up.
Chabot also stressed the need to diversify the economy and pointed to the carbon tax as a potential boon for new business, rather than as an albatross.
Spending in a downturn
None of the candidates would give a firm commitment to the Chamber's plan of reducing the tax burden on businesses and shifting some of it onto personal property taxes. The Chamber wants to see a ratio of 2:1 within ten years, as opposed to the current ratio it says is 3.5:1 — meaning for every $1,000 of personal property tax, a business is paying $3,500.
All three candidates said it was important to attract new businesses while also supporting local industries.
Where Smith and Nenshi most differed was on the topic of spending in a downturn, with Smith urging cuts and Nenshi saying the city should focus on finding efficiencies while spending on needed infrastructure during a downturn in order to create jobs and take advantage of lower prices.
Smith also said the city and other levels of government are holding too many entrepreneurs back.
"Entrepreneurs want to move at the speed of light, they don't want to be waiting on someone from city hall making a decision for them," said Smith.
Nenshi said the city has made progress on cutting red tape and making it easier for businesses to set up shop, but there's more work that needs to be done.
Both he and Chabot said more needs to be done to promote the strengths of the city, rather than focusing on the negatives of a downturn.
"I think we've lost a bit of our identity as an entrepreneurial city," said Chabot.
When it came to the thorny question of funding for an arena, losing the Flames and how critical it is to have an entertainment district in the city, Nenshi came out swinging against negotiating "at the point of a knife" and reiterated his stance that public money must be for the public good.
Chabot focused on the financial cost of losing the Flames and said he'd make sure a deal was done, while Smith said he's very concerned about losing the team, but that caution is required when it comes to financing.
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"At the end of the day, we have to have a deal that makes sense for Calgarians," said Smith, who stressed that an arena is more than just a place for hockey.
Nenshi didn't hold back in his retort.
"That's the most specific I've ever heard Mr. Smith on that topic and it wasn't that specific," he said.
Nenshi and Smith, however, saved most of their personal barbs for their closing statements, while Chabot stayed away from attacks.
Smith started by likening Nenshi to a problem employee who doesn't listen to advice, keep promises, work well with others or learn from mistakes and "they always think they're the smartest person in the room."
"At some point you realize they're the problem, they're holding you back, so what do you do? You fire them," he said.
Nenshi attacked Smith in turn for running a campaign which he said was short on ideas and big on money.
"It's not enough to say 'I don't like that guy, things gotta change, something's gotta change.' You've got to actually say what that something is," he said. "What we've heard today is, 'I'm going to cut spending, but I won't tell you where.'"
Also running for mayor are Emile Gabriel, Larry Heather, David Lapp, Jason Achtymichuk (Jason GoGo), Brent Chisholm, Curtis Olson and Stan (the Man) Waciak