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FortisBC Rate Hikes, Controlling Government Spending Are At Centre of Debate at All-Candidates Seniors’ Forum
The high costs of electricity bills in Osoyoos and getting the province’s finances under control and heading towards a balanced budget were the hot button issues during a All-Candidates Seniors’ Forum held Tuesday afternoon at the Osoyoos Seniors Centre.
Four of the five candidates trying to become the new MLA for the Boundary-Similkameen riding attended the forum, which attracted a crowd of about 40. They included NDP candidate Sam Hancheroff, Liberal candidate Linda Larson, Mischa Popoff, who is running as an independent after being removed from the ballot by Conservative Party leader John Cummins late last week, and independent Doug Pedersen. Green Party candidate John Kwasnica did not attend.
Several of the seniors in attendance were most upset about the “two-tiered billing system” introduced to this community by FortisBC over the past several years, which they unanimously complained has resulted in dramatically higher monthly bills.
When FortisBC introduced their new billing system, they promised consumers the vast majority would benefit from a reduction in rates, but that hasn’t been the case at all and people on fixed incomes like seniors have been hit extremely hard, said David Smith.
“My Fortis bill has doubled over the past four years … while their profits have quadrupled in the past couple of years,” he said. “That is unconscionable for a monopoly like Fortis. We have no choice.”
Hancheroff said he has received numerous complaints from local residents, including many seniors, about the dramatic increase in FortisBC rates.
He has met some residents on the campaign trail who “were in tears” because of these rate increases and he would do everything in his power to advocate on behalf of local constituents to have rates reduced, said Hancheroff.
“There are seniors and young families that don’t have the means” to pay for these dramatic rate increases, he said.
Pederson said all major corporations and utility companies are corrupt.
“Everything they can rig they will rig and everything that can be rigged has been rigged,” he said.
Larson said FortisBC has not lived up to its promise that a majority of consumers will benefit from the two-tiered billing system.
FortisBC should implement a billing system where “average rates” for power usage are established in every community where they do business and rates for average homeowners would be based on those averages, said Larson.
“If you’re caught above the average rate, then you would be in the second tier of billing,” she said.
Popoff said utility companies like FortisBC have been allowed to dramatically increase rates because the Liberal government is hooked on “sin taxes” for cigarettes, alcohol and fuel and he equated huge increases in electricity bills as another sin tax on consumers who are already “taxed to death.”
“It’s all a tax grab,” he said.
Turning around the province’s struggling economy also garnered strong responses from the candidates.
When an audience member suggested it is the provincial government’s responsibility to create an economic climate that will create more jobs, boost the economy and create wealth, the candidates didn’t disagree.
Popoff said he was born and raised in Saskatchewan and grew up in a province that produced Tommy Douglas, a man who advocated wiping out the provincial debt at all costs to encourage and promote economic development.
Douglas paid off the provincial debt in Saskatchewan before implementing what would become universal health care and became a legend because of it, said Popoff.
Saskatchewan currently has Canada’s most vibrant economy as it produces twice the Gross Domestic Product per capita than what is produced in B.C., which has four times the population, said Popoff.
This province’s public service “is completely out of control” and wastes billions of dollars and his top priority if elected would be to dramatically reduce the number of public servants, he said.
Hancheroff said he would encourage economic growth by concentrating on the prime agricultural opportunities available across the South Okanagan.
Larson said the key to a revitalized economy both locally and provincially is to eliminate much of the bureaucracy that prevents entrepreneurs and small business owners from being successful.
“Government can’t create jobs for you,” she said. “I would rather create a good business atmosphere so that people will want to invest. If you create a good environment to conduct business, you will greatly help the economy.”
When local senior Bill Robertson suggested every provincial ministry should be legislated to enforce ‘zero-based budgeting” and that many programs and services that aren’t deemed essential should be reduced or eliminated to balance the provincial budget, all of the candidates supported his concept.
Several members of the audience also complained about how seniors in this province are the only ones in Canada who have to pay a monthly Medical Services Premium (MSP) and how rates have also increased dramatically over the past few years.
Popoff called it a “regressive form of taxation on seniors” and one he would work to eliminate if elected.
Larson admitted the provincial health care budget would be deeply affected by cutting the premium and a review of the health care budget would have to take place before she would make any final decision on this issue.
Hancheroff said none of the other provinces in Canada have health care tax on seniors and he advocates talking to other provinces about what is being done to balance budgets without charging a premium to vulnerable seniors.
All of the candidates said they would do their best to ensure that the much-discussed expansion of the Penticton Regional Hospital would become a reality as quickly as possible.
Premier Christy Clark has approved a $2 million business plan to detail the hospital’s expansion and she supports that investment because regional and provincial taxpayers are footing the bill and this project has to be done right, said Larson.
When asked about their stance on the proposed national park for the South Okanagan, the candidates treaded carefully realizing this is a very contentious issue in this region and riding.
Talks relating to establishing a national park in the South Okanagan broke off between Parks Canada and the provincial government in January of 2012 after Environment Minister Terry Lakes said public support for the park wasn’t sufficient for the project to proceed.
Hancheroff said the NDP Party platform on this issue is they would like to re-open talks with all stakeholders and resume negotiations.
“It think most of us would love for that area to be preserved,” said Hancheroff.
Larson said she could only support a national park if it didn’t affect any current businesses or land users in a negative way.
“If it costs farmers or ranchers their livelihood, I won’t support it,” she said.
She is, however, in favour of recommendations that would set aside large tracts of land within the proposed park boundaries to be used for nature lovers and environmentally-friendly initiatives.
Popoff said any national park would have to be controlled by the provincial government and “have nothing to do with Ottawa” and he’s doubtful that would ever happen.