Erin Chutter interview with Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart

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This is the first in a series of interviews with Metro Vancouver mayors, looking back at 2009 and forward to 2010 – a year of challenges for many cities, small and large.

Richard Stewart was elected Mayor of Coquitlam in 2005 having lived in the City of Coquitlam for his entire life.

He previously served as the MLA for the provincial riding of Coquitlam-Maillardville. He is married with four children.

Mayor Stewart, what do you see as the key issues facing the region?

Transportation, absolutely.

I am really passionate about transportation and housing. For housing, it isn’t necessarily as people perceive it, but really the need to have market housing. There is a lot of focus on homelessness and it is important, but it is part of much bigger challenge.

I have been involved in housing both in my career and volunteer work over the years and see that tackling the spectrum of housing, from homeless shelters to single family housing is key. Local governments face barriers in this area from other levels. Society has a goal to encourage home ownership because of stability it offers to society and family.

An enormous challenge currently is the lack of purpose built rental housing. We, as a society, don’t build this type of housing. There are huge barriers to people who want to build market rental house – one of the key ones is Federal tax policy and it creates a situation where the economic viability of rental housing not there. Also due to land prices in the region, even if you wanted to build market rental housing it is not viable.

What this means is a low vacancy rate, artificially high rental rates and people are stuck renting and can’t move to ownership, because of the cycle of spending too much on their rental housing costs.

What do you see as Government’s role?

Many families are just a paycheque away from homelessness. Many of these are single parent households and the options available to them in Coquitlam and across the region are inadequate. People who are renting would like to find something better and more appropriate then what they can afford now and the whole family struggles being inadequately housed and paying too much. Governments need to remove barriers for building market housing. Market rentals need active participation from government in getting out of way construction and smoothing the way for development.

Housing is obviously is a huge passion for you. What about transportation?

Right now in Coquitlam we are seeing the benefit of some long overdue transportation projects. Gateway, the massive bridge projects and interchanges, the improvements along highway 1 – all of these have been needed for over two decades. A big part of what we’re doing in Coquitlam right now on this front in the planning for the Evergreen Line. Our staff and council is working very closely with the Evergreen Line project office.

Is it going to happen, do you think?

The work is proceeding very well and we are committed to making it happen. Every one that I speak to in the Provincial Government says it is on track. I know that the work is proceeding to the extent that our staff are now very involved in questions of design of the line, the stations, and municipal transportation improvements that go along with that.

There is also the Coast Meridian Overpass project in Coquitlam and that requires us to do a bunch of work to connect it properly to our transportation grid.

Finally there have been other regional projects, like the six land Pitt River Bridge and the Golden Ears Bridge that have affected our local transportation patterns.

In a good or bad way?

All in a very good way. The Albion Ferry was a horrible choice for commuters and now there are choices that remove bottleneck and avoid issues with weather or other problems. People can get around.

But there is also public transit and that is critical. I still can’t take bus from my house from Guildford – ten minutes away – because there are no buses across the Port Mann Bridge. We have to get public transit options improved for goods movement and viable option for more people. If we do this, we won’t need as much pavement.

Coquitlam and the other suburbs are really public transit challenged. I want people out of their cars and in public transit, or on bikes, but we have lots of work to do. Vancouver residents have lots of options. We need to get a handle on these. Evergreen helps.

Sustainability is a big buzz word in municipal planning. What are you working on in regards to this in Coquitlam?

We are doing a tremendous amount of work around making our municipal buildings more efficient and trying to be creative in our development planning.

The development of sustainable and liveable communities is possible with significant investments in public transportation and rapid transit. We cannot just invest in roads, but we must also have bike paths and public transit in order to reduce pollution and carbon footprints. Technology is going to help us solves these problems.

A great example of this is the newly renovated pool and ice rink in Coquitlam. The arena is the same age as I am and I lived in Coquitlam my whole life. We have used a new technology that transfers the heat from the arena to the pool and the cold from the pool to the arena by using, effectively, a giant green heat circle, allowing us enormous savings in heating between the rink and the pool. These technologies are fascinating. For ten years I published a trade magazine on construction and saw just enormous advancements. One thing in Coquitlam is the installation of LED traffic lights. An average controlled intersection uses 1000-3000 watts of incandescent energy. The LED lights are about 1/10th of that – and also last longer. These items really add up. Technology is something that local governments should embrace to make sustainability more affordable for municipalities.

Changing gears a bit, how is the current recession manifesting itself in Coquitlam?

In the community, some families have definitely personally felt the impact. For the city, we’re looking at a $5 million revenue shortfall and for a mid-sized city that is a big shortfall. It is about 3% of the budget. People wonder how a city can run a deficit, when the tax base is pretty stable. Well, in the past we have had good planning in Coquitlam and have about $100 million in a development reserve for new pipes. The interest revenue we were getting on that this year, however, is much lower – almost $3 million lower. We are also down on development cost charges, development fees. We went through the budget line item by line all day Saturday, meeting in committee to examine how we can protect services while not running a deficit.

How did it go?

It went ok. We can’t budget for deficit and no one wants to cut things. Some we can’t cut: police and fire and we’ve been working hard to improve those services. It is a good solid budget and I’m really proud of work from staff and council.

Coquitlam in better position that most cities in lower mainland as we have traditionally been careful and have spent the last few years with infrastructure improvements and investing in services.

What is the next step?

Budget goes before council over next few weeks. Traditionally Coquitlam tried to pass the budget in December and that allows our staff to get in front of other cities on capital projects in terms of contracts – getting first dibs on available contractors. If we finish this work early, we get out to tender quickly to get best prices. We’re finding this year prices are down 30% from normal on things like paving, we we’re able to move earlier on some projects. We can be as creative as possible at this time and construction industry is happy during these slow times to be working with us.

Vancouver is predicting a huge deficit and significant tax increases are expected...

Well, as for Vancouver and as for us the biggest issue we have is labour costs. We ended up with a long term CUPE contract, which was seen as a good contract to get past Olympics and get some labour stability. But people are second guessing the 4% increase to labour costs at a time where there are revenue difficulties. With the negotiated labour increase, taxes are going to have to go up to meet this. All local government has to make choices. A 4% increase for all civic workers means those wages are outside our budget control, but inside that control we can work on fuel, construction decisions.

Many of citizens having tough times too and we are spending this money like it is our own, with a great deal of caution.

Ok, now something fun. What are the top three reasons Coquitlam is a great city?

We are an incredibility multi cultural and diverse community. It is a source of great pride and pleasure to see this wonderful mix of people from around the world and those born here, like myself, sharing a community and working together. We have the largest French Canadian community in western Canada, my Mom is French Canadian.

When Mallairdville celebrated St Jean Baptiste Day, it included Bangra dancing, Korean ballet and Taekwondo. We had an amazing Canada Day with a collection of people from around the world celebrating where they chose to come and live. My wife’s a teacher and the last event did roll call of languages and the number was 24. This is an enormous job creation advantage for Coquitlam as one of the few places in the world with such harmonious diversity.

Next I would say is environment – we have a beautiful natural setting. In Coquitlam, rivers meet, we’re right on the mountain side, and we have enormous parks like Mundy Park and other provincial parks and spaces like Burke Mountain and Pine Cone Park. We have work to further preserve park settings and allow more people to access them. People always think about mountains on the North Shore but people don’t think about getting up in mountains in Coquitlam.

Finally our town centre is hidden jewel. Most people don’t know we have highrises and a town centre with parks, playing fields, the Douglas College David Lam Campus. This is where the Evergreen termination will be, as well as a critical mass of walkable, transportation friendly public space.

It is work in progress but everyone is going to want to live there.

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