Well over 150 people in attendance for the Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound All Candidates Debate at the Bayshore Community Centre in Owen Sound Tuesday night.
It was hosted by the Owen Sound & District Chamber of Commerce and moderated by recently retired former Bayshore Broadcasting GM Ross Kentner.
Four candidates from the riding were on-hand: incumbent Progressive Conservative Bill Walker, Liberal Francesca Dobbyn, New Democrat Karen Gventer and Elizabeth Marshall from the Trillium Party.
Kentner told the assembly candidate Janice Kaikkonen of the Consensus Ontario Party was absent and Jay Miller from the Libertarian Party may not yet have formally filed to run.
The formal session of the debate featured a series of questions prepared by the Chamber of Commerce dealing with a number of local and provincial issues.
On the province's massive public debt estimated around $340-billion, candidates were asked if was important to move towards balanced or surplus budgets.
Gventer says the NDP believes it is important, while conceding the party platform does run deficits in each year but pointed blame at past Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments. She says the NDP plans to balance the budget after fixing the problems of past by taxing top earners and big corporations more.
Walker says it's critical to have a plan to get out of debt, pointing to the $1-billion in monthly debt-servicing costs Ontario taxpayers shoulder today. He placed the blame solely on Liberal government financial mismanagement, while noting just recently we had another $5-billion surprise when the Auditor General found the projected $6.7-billion deficit was actually $11.7-billion. He stressed we can't have more debt or we will go bankrupt.
Dobbyn says the province needs to get to balanced budgets, but not on the backs of the vulnerable. She says we have to make sure we don't cut services for seniors and the disabled, and continue to invest in people.
Marshall says the Trillium party respects the Auditor General (AG) and believes it should have more power over government. She says there has been so much waste by government and the AG has been ignored, which is why Ontario is in such a large financial mess.
On the issue of provincially-appointed arbitrators who award large salaries to public service employees such as police and firefighters without factoring in a municipality's ability to absorb the costs, all candidates acknowledged it's a major issue needing to be addressed.
Walker says the ability for a municipality to pay has to be a significant component of the process. He says the current model is unsustainable because of the strain it puts on the tax base.
Gventer says arbitrators are supposed to already been taking this into account, and then pointed blame at past governments for downloading more and more costs onto municipalities. She says the NDP will reverse those cost downloads.
Marshall says our small municipalities are being destroyed by big urban wants. She says big city wages can't be paid for firefighters and police and there has to be some form of equity for that.
Dobbyn says it's an issue she wants to take to Queen's Park and get some results on.
On school closures, Walker points out 600 schools have been closed across the province under the Liberals, including many in Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound. He says the closures tear apart communities and make them less attractive for people to move to. He says the funding formula needs to be fixed, and criticized the Liberals for promising to do so in the past but not acting on it.
Dobbyn says the challenge with rural school closures is declining enrolment, leaving some buildings not cost-effective. She stresses the importance of kids not being forced to ride buses for a long time to get to and from school, and reminds there are moratoriums in place on closures.
Marshall says she's done a lot of work on the issue, including presenting violations of legislation to government that forced re-consideration and amendments on certain closures.
Gventer says the funding formula is broken and needs to be fixed. She suggests consulting with parents and teachers.
On the dire shortage of long-term care beds in Ontario, all candidates agreed lots of work needs to be done.
Dobbyn says the Liberals pledge 5,000 new beds and notes we need to plan better, as we knew this was coming 30 years ago and we're feeling the effect of non-planning.
Walker agrees, saying we should have known 30 years ago, the Liberal government knew. He says it's time to take action now, and points out the PCs have committed to 15,000 new long-term care beds and up to 30,000 over 10 years.
Marshall says we need more Personal Support Workers, more beds and more money. She says we're wasting about $100-million per year on LHINs (Local Health Integration Networks) when we have other ministries doing the exact same thing. She says the Trillium party would put that money towards front-line workers.
Gventer says it's a big problem and we need to make sure long-term care facilities are available in all our communities. She points to an inquiry to make sure long-term care facilities are staffed properly to give residents a minimum of four hours per day of care.
Kentner asked candidates their plans to collaborate with federal and municipal governments to re-develop the Owen Sound harbour.
Dobbyn says she would like to see more development around the harbour and says there's a lot of opportunity for small business, but made no commitments and offered no plans to achieve it.
Marshall says the province needs to petition the province to pay for their property as navigable waters are federal jurisdiction. She says the harbour can be a huge moneymaker for Owen Sound.
Walker says dealing with the harbour requires infrastructure money and points to the province's public debt created by the Liberals -- namely $133-billion on the Green Energy Act and $25-billion for short-term hydro rate relief -- as funds that could have been spent on harbour renewal or other development. He says we should engage a lot more with private enterprise to develop things like the Owen Sound harbour.
Gventer says she would commit to working with all levels of government to make sure it's clean. She says, ultimately, municipalities need to have more money and the NDP plan helps that by taxing the most wealthy to fund services and infrastructure.
The Ontario Election is June 7.