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HomeNewsHuntsville mayoral candidates debate as election day draws closer

Huntsville mayoral candidates debate as election day draws closer

The four Huntsville mayoral candidates got their opportunity to pitch residents on why they deserve the head seat around the council table.

YourTV host James Bowler and Barbara Bloomfield from the Huntsville/Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce hosted Your Vote on YourTV from the Algonquin Theatre in Huntsville on Sept. 29.

The candidates for mayor are Nancy Alcock, Stephen Hernen, Reuben Pyette-Bouillon, and Tim Withey.

In Hernen’s opening statement, he touted his 37 years of experience in municipal government. He served as director of operations and protective services as well as fire chief before retiring in Aug. 2021. “Good government puts people first,” he said, adding that he understands how difficult it can be dealing with government. He said he plans to listen to the needs of residents while balancing that with funding and resource availability. “I get things done,” he added.

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Withey, who has served as one of Huntsville’s district councillors since 2018, pointed to his work developing the future of Fairvern Nursing Home as one of his accomplishments. “I entered this campaign with a passion to serve you and lead our beautiful town to responsible development while honouring our past,” he said. Withey listed his priorities as housing, healthcare, the environment, and respecting the taxpayer.

Two-term district councillor Nancy Alcock said one of her priorities is managing growth and development in a careful, balanced way. She said she would work towards building mixed-use neighbourhoods to allow for housing of all types to be built. Alcock said she also wants council to play a big role in the new Huntsville hospital. “If anyone says the local level of government doesn’t matter they’re just plain wrong,” she said.

Reuben Pyette-Bouillon, who owns Independent Taxi in Huntsville, said he is running for mayor in hopes he can make a positive change to the town. “We have to do better for the property owners in this community,” he said. Pyette-Bouillon said council needs to recognize the opioid crisis and help the people that he said are currently living in tents or couch surfing because they can’t afford a place to live permanently. 

The first topic of discussion was the $74 million that Huntsville could be on the hook for as the local share of the new hospital that Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare is planning to build. 

Hernen said he believes the cost will end up being closer to $130 million. He added that the Huntsville Hospital Foundation will hopefully help with the cost. He said that it’s possible an increase in taxes could help, but he doesn’t think it’s necessary. Hernen believes the town has enough money in reserves to cover the cost, which could be earmarked for the hospital fund. If elected, Hernen pledged to commit $10 million to the new hospital within his first year in office.

Pyette-Bouillon commented that the town has to put forward an “awful lot of money.” He credited the current hospital for being well staffed and well taken care of. However, he criticized how the space is used “poorly” with a wing full of offices that should be full of beds instead. Pyette-Bouillon said, if elected, he would look at the issue of the lack of funding the hospital gets for equipment rather than committing millions to build a new hospital.

Withey, who previously served on the board of the North Simcoe Muskoka Local Health Integration Network, believes it will be more than a decade before the new hospital is done. He agreed with Hernen saying, adjusted for inflation, the cost will likely continue to rise. He said he’s not opposed to setting money aside but is skeptical that it’s possible noting that the money in the town’s reserves isn’t just “stashed away” for no reason.

Alcock criticized the province for continuing to download costs onto municipalities. She pointed out that they have to provide their share or else they risk the application dying, which she said she doesn’t want to happen. She proposed a special hospital levy that would be “quite painful” in the first year but would become easier to manage as the years go by. Alcock said the key is to make a commitment and stick with it.

One question put to the candidates was about ensuring affordable and attainable housing is available for everyone.

Pyette-Bouillon says he, if elected, would adopt the housing first model which helps people find permanent housing and continues to support them afterwards. He added he believes the zoning rules are too restrictive and added that short-term rentals are taking over “good residential spaces.” He said that “come hell or high water” the high rent prices and lack of housing in Huntsville need to change.

Withey said that it’s a multi-faceted issue that can be approached from a number of directions. First, he suggested streamlining the permitting system. He said that he would, as mayor, allow landlords to own more affordable units, adding he knows of two developers looking to build “significant” affordable units. 

Alcock said housing has been her “singular focus” for more than a decade through volunteering with the District of Muskoka and recently chairing the Muskoka Housing Task Force. Alcock said she’s learned that this is not something that can’t be done quickly or easily. She, like Withey, said she knows of developers that are interested in building in Huntsville.

Hernen noted he’s been in the affordable housing business for years and currently works with the district to provide housing. He said the programs offered at the district level don’t have enough incentives. He said they need to “sweeten the pot” to entice developers to work with them. Hernen said put forward the possibility of a town incentive to go along with what the district offers.

Other issues discussed include the vibrant arts and culture community, development, the recent major work done in downtown Huntsville, and short-term rentals.

The municipal election is Oct. 24.

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