The Whitecourt & District Chamber of Commerce facilitated a virtual forum for the Woodlands County candidates on October 7. Multiple questions were asked of the group of 13, including division-specific questions. Residents can watch the recording of the virtual forum on the Chamber's Facebook page.
This article will provide an answer from each individual to one question asked at the forum. Question: As residents and possibly business owners, are you satisfied with the current level of services offered, and if not, what aspects would you change and why?
First up, Division 3 candidates (Whitecourt Central), Alan Deane and Donna Gerber. Incumbent Ron Govenlock did not attend. Donna Gerber said that they travel on the roads a lot in her business and said they struggle. "We've been in a cash crunch, and the service hasn't quite been what it was in the past. We need to become financially stable so that we can increase our road maintenance. I believe with a local because someone from somewhere else isn't working with the dirt and clay we have here. Locals know how to build the roads here."
Alan Deane responded that the road issues were the number one concern for residents but said he heard of other concerns. "One that I had never thought of before was help for families that have children on the autism spectrum. I wasn't aware that these folks didn't have a resource to go to. I think the services that need to be implemented need to come from the residents, and there are ways to get that (information) through surveys."
Division 2 candidates (Whitecourt West), incumbent John Burrows and Patricia MacNeil answered next. "When I've been out talking to people, the number one thing that I've found that they have been concerned about, with their level of service, has been with the roads," said MacNeil. "We have a lot of road builders in this area, and we are not utilizing their expertise. I would like to see us build an Infrastructure Advisory Committee that is a private/public partnership where we could get the expertise of some of our local road builders that have been doing it for years."
John Burrows said that roads are the backbone of the economy, calling looking after them a key thing. "We have 750 kilometres of road in Woodlands County. We have started an Asset Management Program that measures where we are and if we are getting value for dollar on the roads. You'll actually see in one spot out on Horne Road where we've used geo-web for the very first time, and there's an actual test section. The other part is looking at contracted services rather than doing them ourselves. I think we can find lots of efficiencies there."
The Whitecourt East (Division 4) candidates, Roland Thompson, Colby Wells and Jeremy Wilhelm, took to the mic. Colby Wells said that as a business owner, a few things make being cost-effective hard. One is taxes. "If we get a stable environment as a council, it can help businesses keep going. We always need better road maintenance, and we always want more infrastructure. We have to sit down and realize what (the residents) need from us as a council and bring them in as the most important part of what we are doing in sitting on this council."
Jeremy Wilhelm said that Woodlands County had some of the best services in the area for a long time. "We may have gotten away from that, especially with roads and infrastructure. This is a very important thing in my division. Everybody wants to talk about roads. I think we can create better services around the roads and our infrastructure by making sure that we've got a 10-year capital investment strategy for how we are going to maintain and upgrade our roads for the next ten years and looking at formalizing a gravel road maintenance system. With all that together, we can put a plan for the present and the future for our roads and infrastructure and limit residents' frustrations."
Roland Thompson said, "I've been speaking to everyone, and the big thing is the roads. Myself being a class one gravel truck driver, I know where lots of those issues are, and they kind of patch over them at times in the county, and I think if we really dug in and just took a certain area and fixed the road properly as other counties do, we wouldn't have to have our road bans on so long."
Division 6, Goose Lake/Freeman River, has three candidates in the running, Judy Bradley, Peter Kuelken, and Crystal Wood. "We need a gravel road maintenance system," began Judy Bradley. "We need to plan for that in our budget and have a schedule for which roads are going to be improved. Also, I think residents would like to see the widening of secondary highway 658 between Blue Ridge and Cottonwood corner. When you are travelling that road in the winter, the snow is flying up, and you do not have very much margin for error on the shoulders there. As a resident, I'm really happy to be living in Woodlands County and quite satisfied with the level of service that I receive. I would just like to see the roads and the road maintenance kept up and improved."
Crystal Wood said that her area of the County feels forgotten with services. "I know with small kids that there are very limited opportunities for things to do here. Aside from a gravel road, Woodlands County provides us with very little. That would be something that I would want to change. As a business owner, there's nowhere to put a business. We need to provide opportunities for our residents. We need to give them spaces to build businesses, and then we need to get out of the way and let them go to work."
Peter Kuelken agreed with Wood on her comments about feeling left out on the services side. "I think that on the roads we've done very well here to a certain degree, but the problem I see more is in the delivery of services. We see so many inefficiencies in the way that the service is delivered. We have to have local contractors involved in this because the inefficiencies that we see could be part of the reason we have knee-jerk reactions to fixing these roads and not doing it properly. I believe that an asset management strategy is the most important thing we do if it comes to roads."
The final grouping is Division 2, Fort Assiniboine/Timeu. Incumbent Dale Kluin said that level of service is a two-way street and pointed to downloads from the provincial government. "We are expected to do more and more with less and less, and we are all in the same boat. One of the things we did in the last couple of years in this area is our maintenance staff was taking over the winter maintenance on secondary highways. We heard nothing but complaining, and rightfully so. We took it over, and I defy anybody to tell me that it hasn't improved over the last couple of years."
Devin Williams said that residents want more small businesses and road maintenance. "We also are fairly dependant on our surrounding areas. I think Woodlands can make more strides by bringing more to our communities versus piggybacking off of some others. I understand we are a county, and we aren't going to be a town, but we could have a little bit more there."
Lastly, Cecil Aldrich said he wasn't going to dwell on roads much since everyone had already mentioned it. "The thing that I want to touch on that I've talked to with residents in Fort Assiniboine is the services and the infrastructure, the water, and sewer type of system and how it's working. We seem to be digging up our streets every year and lots of times in all the same places. That's costing us extra money to redo them again and again. We've got to find a way to solve these problems once. It's a beautiful, wonderful place to live, but there are some things that we will have to change to keep going and improving if we want to attract more people and more business."
To view the entire forum and hear all the answers provided by candidates, check out the Whitecourt & District Chamber of Commerce Facebook page.
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press