Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer describes 2018 as the most “challenging” year since she was elected to public office in 2004.
Sure, there were some powerful positives, says Veer.
“First and foremost is Red Deer College attaining university status.”
As an RDC alumni, she celebrated this and believes it is key to Red Deer expanding and diversifying the local economy in years to come.
She was also thrilled with the “25-year-in the making” opening of the Gary W. Harris Canada Winter Games Centre at RDC, as well as the opening of the city’s new Servus Arena and Setter’s Place in Great Chief Park.
Games-related construction activity was an even greater boon to the city than anyone could have predicted, says Veer, who’s similarly pleased the city hosted the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup and landed the Canadian Finals Rodeo, as well as the World Juniors Hockey Championship for 2020-21.
To address public safety, a four-officer downtown police unit was formed. The mayor believes this was a significant gain and will put a big dent in local crime.
But a lot of hard, even no-win, decisions had to be made by city council, she said.
Veer cites the “unprecedented” legislation that was needed to deal with legalized cannabis sales.
The federal government set a tight timeline, and city council was getting mixed messages from some provincial departments about what was needed, Veer recalled.
However, rules were imposed and some cannabis outlets have set up shop and are operating.
Then there was the opioid crisis that resulted in Red Deer leading the province in overdose deaths. The province pushed to open supervised drug injection sites in all large and mid-sized cities. Many Red Deerians didn’t want it. Period.
Veer said council was torn, in part, because the province wasn’t willing to fund a local treatment centre, which is badly needed.
Finding the supervised consumption service site was polarizing: Businesses didn’t want it nearby, while local advocates blamed the city for dragging its heels.
Finally, a spot was chosen last month in the Railands, where the supervised consumption site was approved for a seven-year period by council.
It’s expected to be opened by Turning Point in the first quarter of 2019.
“We try to respond to community concerns,” says Veer, but this project was not going to please everybody.
Another contentious issue was the sizable pay increase council approved for the mayor and council to offset a loss of tax-exempt status.
Councillors explained their take-home pay would remain the same, but many taxpayers were outraged to be paying more for council salaries.
In hindsight, Veer believes council could have acted sooner to find ways of mitigating the change. But, she recalls,
“We wanted to see what other boards and councils were doing” — and most were bumping up their gross salaries to take home the same net — which was what council opted for.
Perhaps the greatest challenge that’s dogged Red Deer throughout 2018 and into 2019 is the recessionary economy. Veer feels the year started out optimistically, but pipeline stalls slowed the recovery.
Looking ahead at 2019, she says city council will continue addressing crime at the local level, and lobby for expanded national and international markets for the energy sector.
Council will also keep advocating for a badly needed Red Deer hospital expansion, a local drug treatment centre, and more beds and a daytime shelter for the city’s street population. Veer believes this city is under-served for its population.
Councillors will start the new year by grappling to pass an operating budget that delivers what citizens expect will be a tax increase of no more than 2.5 per cent.
Veer acknowledges this will be a tricky feat: Revenues are down in recreation, transit and building, but council can’t keep hiking user fees when many people are struggling financially.
Although things are not expected to pick up in the first half of 2019, Veer believes all of Red Deer can look forward to the Winter Games beginning on Feb. 15 and the city’s new cultural centre opening at the old Central Intermediate School.
Thousands of Canadians will arrive in the city — and the mayor feels this will have a buoyant effect on the local economy and on tourism.
“Hopefully, people will see Red Deer and want to come back to visit us again.”