Phil Brienesse

Smithers election: Phil Brienesse

Council incumbent Phil Brienesse’s answers on a wide variety of topics.

Bio – I have lived in Smithers since 1995. I have served on council for seven years. I have been married for 18 years and I have an 8 year old daughter. I run my own web development company and work part time at McBike and Sport. I am also an Apiary Inspector for the Northwest Region with the Ministry of Agriculture. During my time on Council I was also a Director on the Board of the Union of BC Municipalities which advocates with the province for the needs of all communities.

For the next term I see our top priorities and challenges as being…

1) Affordable Housing. During my time on council I have collaborated to make a supportive housing project a reality and we are now seeing 24 units of supportive housing being built. We can address rising housing costs by expanding the area where laneway houses are permitted and looking at narrow lot sizes. We need to continue to work with BC Housing and community groups to offer affordable rental housing.

2) Library/Art Gallery project. Smithers remains a desirable place to live because of the many amenities it offers. In order to continue to attract people to live here we need to keep our current infrastructure, like the library and art gallery, up to date. Both organizations are in out dated buildings that have become to small for the community’s needs. By combining the two we are able to benefit from a large amount of shared space. This reduces the overall size of building needed while making a dynamic and flexible public space for everyone to enjoy. The library stopped being just about books many years ago. They offer a wealth of programs, access to the internet and technology but need more space for programing to continue. Council brought this project to a stage that we could apply for grants when they became available. The province has announced a new funding stream covering up to 90% of project costs specifically targeting arts and culture as well as projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Any town borrowing would need approval of the electorate (BC law) and I would commit to using a referendum for the town’s borrowed portion of the library/art gallery project. I am excited to see this move forward.

3) Asset management and infrastructure renewal. We need to invest more in our basic infrastructure such as roads and sidewalks. When I was first elected to council during budget deliberations I learned that even though we had a road condition assesment that said we needed to spend more on paving we had been underfunding it for many years. This artificial way of keeping taxes low didn’t sit well with me. We need to adequately maintain our current infrastructure. We drastically increased the amount we were spending annually on paving and have made progress on road quality. We also created a sidewalk fund and have invested more in sidewalk and active transportation infrastructure. Our latest road condition study which was just completed shows us we still have more to do. As long term borrowing debts are retired we need to redirect those savings into increased core infrastructure investments. I have also long been a proponent of asset management for our core infrastructure. Knowing the condition of our infrastructure and the amount needed to maintain and replace it is key to good budget decisions.

3.5) Over arching all these priorities and most things we do in council I have an eye to the challenge of climate change. We must do what we can at the local level to limit greenhouse gas emissions for the benifit of future generations.

Downtown

Downtown is what is most unique about Smithers amongst other communities in the North. The diversity of small businesses and services is second to none. We need to continue to encourage development within downtown while maintaining its signature character. Removing parking restrictions in the downtown is one thing the current council did which has resulted in more flexibility for development and allowed several (re)developments to proceed. The new revitalization tax exemption which gives up to 100% tax break for 5 years on developments that incorporate 2nd story residential in their commercial project is another item this council passed and I think it has real potential to add vibrancy to our downtown. More people living in downtown adds to our housing mix, puts eyes on the street, and brings life to downtown beyond 6pm.

Housing

As mentioned above affordable housing will be one of my top priorities in the coming term. We have secured the supportive housing development for people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. Now we need to focus on rental housing for low income families and seniors. BC Housing has a new round of funding that has opened up and we are looking forward to working with local non-profits on potential projects. The other piece of this puzzle is of course home ownership. There is potential to further diversify our housing stock by expanding laneway housing into other zones, looking at multiple houses on a single lot and reducing the minimum lot frontage to accommodate skinny houses on some of the orpahned 25 and 33ft lots in town. I think the idea of flex zoning also warrants discussion with the community. This would be residential zoning that allowed for a greater variety of housing types in a new zone.

Cannabis Legalization

The discussion here is not whether we want to legalize cannabis or not, that decision has already been made. It is about how it looks in our community. The town has completed a public engagement on the issue including a survey which saw an overwhelming number of responses. I support the general direction of the report that was provided at our last council meeting. Retail of cannabis with the retail core of the downtown with a mix of private and public stores. A buffer for retailers from schools would be required. I am not sure if the 150M buffer recommended though is too large as it rules out most of the south side of main street all the way over to Walnut Park. Perhaps 100M would be sufficient. This is still all part of a public conversation. I think the biggest part of that and the part which received the most comments in our survey is public consumption. I pushed hard at our last council meeting to not set a firm direction for that part until the public has had time to review the report and we have more of a conversation about where it is acceptible to consume cannabis in public. As it currently sits provincial regulations mirror that of smoking regulations and add in parks, and schools as areas you can not consume cannabis.

Taxes and Spending

I feel this council has done a very good job of keeping tax increases reasonable. It is unrealistic to say there will be no tax increase. Inflation and contractual obligations alone adds 2% per year. Combine with that a need to keep core infrastructure up to date makes it very difficult to find opportunities to reduce taxation. Often new people who seek election run on a platform of reducing taxes. Having spent 4 years as finance committee chair I can say it is very difficult to find funds to reduce taxation. Grants are often very specific with what the funds can be used for. It is simply not possible to reallocate a grant for a specific project to reduce taxes. In order to reduce taxes you need to cut services. So far in any public consultation we have had citizens do not seem willing to do that. Instead I think we can make wise choices with the funds we have. For example by building the new Library/Art Gallery building to the passive house standard it will consume 75% less energy then a conventional build and will pay off the premium for passive house after 12 years. This is a prudent use of funds when you have a long term vision. Its easy to say you are doing it for less at the front but in the long term it costs you more. I always keep a long term vision when we are spending funds. The portland loo would be another good example. The upfront cost was high. But so far there have been no maintenance issues and it will be far cheaper to operate in the long term than a conventional building.

Environment

I think the greatest challenge of our time is climate change. We have come to a stage where we need to stop saying things like jobs or the environment. Many countries have shown it is possible to have both. In fact green technologies generally employ more people than their traditional carbon burning counterparts. In every decision I make I try and think what this will mean for my daughter and future generations and what kind of climate and environment they will be living in because of the choices we make now.

Sports

Smithers is an amazingly active town. We are blessed with a plethora of organizations that provide great programs to kids and adults. I will continue support investment in sports where appropriate but allow a climate where businesses and non-profits can also deliver programs in a much more cost effective way than the town can. An example of a good partnership would be the gymnastics club. The town owns and maintains the building which they use and provide it at a very reasonable cost. The volunteers of the club in turn deliver a high level program at a cost the town could never manage.

Arts & Culture

Besides being a very physically active town Smithers is very active in music, visual arts, dance and has a rich cultural history. For many years we have focused heavily on sports investment. We need a balance though. Involvement in the arts at a young age produces youth who are more creative and critical thinkers both of which is key to future success. Besides the new Library/Art Gallery project I am excited to have a conversation with our diverse arts community as to how the town can better promote them and their needs.

Tourism

Smithers has a long history of tourism opportunity. We are a beautiful place. More and more we are seeing amazing businesses that are part of this economy. The local breweries are a great example of a business that benefits locals but also adds to the diverse tourism economy. Our downtown is also another prime driver of the tourists experience. They may come here for the Steelhead fishing or mountain biking but are always amazed by what the rest of the town offers. This is one of the many ways we pick up new residents as well. Investing in tourism is investing in the long term growth of our community.

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