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COUNCIL: City council candidates asked about approach to city finances

Facing future financial ‘Big Rocks’
Canadian $100 bills are counted out. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

l Ken Blackburn…

Taxation is always a contentious issue for a community. Nobody ‘likes’ taxes but it is important that we align taxation with the vision of what we want our community to be.

Taxes should be viewed as a tool to assist us in building our community. If we want to build a house for example, we know we need a hammer, saw, drill, etc. We know not to try to hammer a nail with a saw (or at least we should know that). If we see our community as a house, then taxation is one of the essential tools we need in order to build according to our plans. And taxation should address particular needs, just as tools address particular tasks.

We have to begin with our plans before we can know what level our taxes need to be (be wary of anyone throwing out numbers before outlining their plan). The OCP will be revisited over the coming year. The OCP must be inclusive of the Master Transportation Plan and the Agricultural Plan. It must also take into account the adaptation and mitigation strategies needed to prepare for increased storm surges, erosions, flooding hazards, increased drought and fire preparedness . Our asset management plan (water, sewer, roads) will also form a central part of our OCP. Housing growth and density, social challenges, public safety, increased tourism, strong cultural institutions – all of these areas will be considered within our OCP public discussions.

Obviously we can’t do everything at once. We will need to match our visions with a prioritized action plan, one that we should budget over a ten year term. A ten year budget allows us to be prepared for the unevenness in an economy, much like we see in the stock market and inflation. Key community discussions - alongside consultations with developers, industry leaders, community social experts, cultural leaders, planners and businesses - will emerge our priorities.

Growth will be dependent on how we manage our industrial development alongside our quality-of-life assets. Growing interest in wildlife and historic experiences, our natural parks, trails, mountains, camping, skiing, scuba diving, skydiving, theatres, galleries, museum, public arts, active transportation, thriving businesses – all of these strengths are what become attractive for new investment, entrepreneurs, creative industry relocation. People want to live here because of job opportunities and these key quality of life indicators. Opportunities for volunteerism, for social connection, assists in our economic development. This is our strength, alongside our historic connections to forestry, fishing and mining.

Combined we need to review growth expectations with revenue/expense expectations. An operational scan looking at strengths, weaknesses, gaps and needs will highlight where resources need to be targeted. And this is where the level of taxation needed to address our priorities will emerge. We must be prudent in our planning however – we can’t allow taxation to simply increase every year. We must balance it through inclusive discussion. We are in this together. And together we will determine how we want to grow and what investments we need to make. This is the tool of taxation.

l Doug Chapman…

If I am elected, I would examine the base budget that was established in the Financial Plan Bylaw to examine what changes Staff are anticipating in the base budget. First, when it comes to forecasting the budget, we would need an accurate estimate of what the taxation will be from new construction. In future years, if we unblock the log jam in development and subdivision approvals, we would have sufficient new revenue from new construction to offset the majority of the needed tax increases.

Secondly, the new Council will have to examine capital projects that will require current year taxation and scale back those plans. By developing new properties we would not be in this position in the future years. The City needs to take a longer approach in their financial planning efforts. If land owners were allowed to build new buildings on their property it would help with the taxation issues as well as the housing market.

l Mike Davies…

I understand that we have contractual obligations we have to fulfill that are constantly increasing in cost, which is usually the main argument I hear for raising taxes. Yes, running a city gets more expensive over time, this is just the reality, but the argument that we always either have to raise taxes or cut services to keep the city running is faulty.

All organizations within this community, whether they are non-profits or businesses, are constantly figuring out ways to either do more with what they already have or find a way to increase revenue, and they can’t just do it by increasing the amount people have to pay to walk through the door, or people will stop walking through the door. Why is the city any different?

Let’s look for some efficiencies within the budget itself and find some places to save money. Let’s also figure out ways to generate revenue for the city that isn’t just constantly increasing the amount people have to pay for owning property or businesses here.

Some line items in the budget that I have questions about:

Are we really going to spend $40,000 for the production of a video celebrating our 75th anniversary of being a city?

The City spends $46,000 per year every year for new laptops – so every 10 years, that’s almost a half-million dollars.

We spend $20,000 per year every year for new printers. How much are we printing? It’s 2022!

We spend $17,000 per year every year for new photocopiers. Same question as the printers.

I don’t know if all these line items are wasteful, but I’ve never seen a report on any of them to show that they’re not, and while none of them in and of themselves are going to significantly change the level of taxation needed to be collected from the people of Campbell River, they represent just a small sample of expenses that, when added up, could make a difference if we could find ways to decrease them.

We also need to better prepare for future grant opportunities that come along from other levels of government. I see so much talk about having things “shovel-ready” for when funding becomes available, but I don’t see much actual work being done to make that happen.

We should have a project ready in the wings at all times that fall under all the umbrellas that other levels of government might provide funding for at any given time, whether it’s roadwork, infrastructure upgrades like water mains and sewers, recreation facilities and parks, climate change adaptation and mitigation plans, food security, educational programs, active transportation, communications or IT systems. You never know when there’s going to be money made available, so let’s be ready for when it is and go after it. We’ve missed out on a lot of free money because we don’t have plans ready for it when it’s announced that it’s available, so instead it goes to communities who do have those plans in place.

l Gwen Donaldson…

The City of Campbell River has an award-winning financial services department, and a long-term financial plan. So, we should be able to work with staff to address these upcoming financial concerns in a way that is reasonable for our entire community. So, here are some ideas for creating efficiency. But, I would also look to the leadership of the financial services department, to address the upcoming challenges.

Council and the City could work to:

1) avoid unnecessary staff turnover, by creating a positive and cooperative work environment. Staff turnover is always costly from an operational and financial standpoint.

2) ensure the city is appropriately staffed, so that critical upgrades don’t fall through the cracks, and service provision is timely and efficient. We could also address succession planning, so that when staff do retire or leave, we do not face large knowledge gaps and prolonged vacancies.

3) develop an asset management policy, so that we are investing and planning appropriately for the future, and to ensure we are doing work once, not over and over again.

4) use our geographic space efficiently, encourage responsible development, and create more density in certain areas to increase the tax base, without overextending our infrastructure.

5) be more efficient with staff time by avoiding redundant reports and disorganized policy processes. Council could work to implement and resource the plans that we already have.

6) work collaboratively with other levels of government, and organizations to leverage outside funding opportunities, like grants and external contributions. A more collaborative governance approach would also make it easier for community organizations to take advantage of outside funding and drive more investment into the region.

7) promote the tourism industry and work to support tourism accommodation businesses to increase the MRDT revenue. MRDT funding is used to promote local tourism, in general, which would inspire economic activity for the whole community.

8) streamline and update our procurement policy. It looks like the last update was in 2008, so modernizing this policy could help drive local investment and make the process more competitive.

9) look at our municipal regulatory frameworks and see if we could responsibly ease, adapt, or streamline our processes to be more effective. We could also assess the revenue streams we do have, such as user fees and development cost charges, to confirm that they are in line with municipal best practices, and comparable to other regions.

10) look at our existing assets, and facilities to see if there are ways to maximize efficiencies in use or expand the scope of the services we provide, for financial gain. We can ensure we are avoiding duplicates, and redundancies, and we could look at co-location opportunities, and service sharing agreements.

There could be challenging financial times ahead for many communities, not just Campbell River. But, I know that we can overcome these issues, if we use the resources we have, apply modern best practices, and work together with staff, and the public in a collaborative and transparent way.

l Colleen Evans…

Our long-term 10-year financial plan helps promote stability and lessen the risk of large swings or changes to taxation and/or service levels. In the shorter term, 1-3 years, my approach would be to investigate ways to increase other sources of revenue, find efficiencies in how we allocate resources and identify achievable ways to reduce the City’s reliance on residential property taxes. Some of these include:

• A review of City fees policy to ensure they are a fair representation of costs and equitable under a user pay model versus taxation and that the cost to deliver those services is quantified. Consider various pricing and policy models in our fee review, a review that has not taken place in over 10 years and look for efficiencies and revenue generation opportunities;

• The Financial Stability and Resiliency Policy established in 2016 created a framework around stability to ensure that sudden spikes and dips in taxes do not occur. As recommended by staff, undertake a review of the Policy to ensure the budget parameters are still meeting the needs of our growing community, providing financial stability and are equitable;

• Consider recommendations in the review of the Finance Policy specifically related to Reserve Funds and determine if the budget parameters of how much goes into each of the Reserve Funds is still relevant for what our goals are now;

• The recent Development Approval Process (DAP) Review identified potential for streamlining processes and increasing revenue opportunities while managing significant growth. For example, there are variations in DAP application fees and escalators between peer municipalities, however, Campbell River fees consistently charge less than it’s peer communities including Courtenay, Penticton and Langford. Put an action plan in place to move the report recommendations forward including ways to increase revenue potential through managed growth.

• Review development cost charges to ensure that development is paying for itself and that projects related to growth are being properly captured and integrated into the financial plan;

• Finalize recommendations brought forward for how we use the remaining Covid Safe Start Grant and leverage these funds for greatest impact on our financial plan and goals;

• Are there better ways to use the Community Works and Gaming Funds for financial stability and greater financial impact? Less than half of the City’s budget is funded through local property taxation; the majority is funded through user fees, sale of services and senior government grants, including the Community Works (Federal Gas Tax) funds and provincial gaming grants to support community services and capital improvements. Are there better ways to build those into our financial planning?;

• Explore the current funding models with the Strathcona Regional District to look at where we can find opportunities for greater efficiencies or increased financial revenue when we are partnering on public facilities like the Strathcona Gardens;

• Consider providing services through coordination or collaboration with user groups, service organizations, sports clubs, and nonprofit organizations. We have examples of successful partnerships with the City, it would be worthwhile to see if there are efficiencies and cost savings in exploring more of these.

l Tanille Johnston…

Enabling the secondary suites will naturally increase revenue to the city for those homeowners that move to build secondary, carriage or garden suites.

Establishing a budget that aligns with the vital needs of our community and then looks at where the opportunities are within that for other initiatives that could have a positive impact on our City. We can’t do everything at once and we need to lean into priorities identified by the people that we’re working for, the people of Campbell River.

Current sitting Council could have been more tactical about Staff utilization. Ensuring that Staff recommendations are taken seriously and that direction to staff is given in a well-educated and efficient way. Tens of thousands of dollars were wasted on staff researching social zoning bylaws. With hundreds of community members speaking out against such a thing, why were staff given the direction to pursue this? Current sitting Council should have been able to know amongst themselves that putting social services all within one specific area will only create us a downtown east side. Not only was this a huge waste of time and money, it also forced other tasks at hand for the Planning Team to be put aside.

Council meetings themselves are also costly. As a Council member, making sure that I’m reading all materials, consulting our community members, and being active in my awareness of topics so that when I’m present at the Council table I can be prompt and deliberate in order to maintain a smooth an concise agenda.

We also need to listen to our staff and their needs. We need to do a better job at recruiting and retaining employees. Acknowledgement and recognition go along was, as does trust and respect. We need to review exit interviews, ask for critical feedback and build a human resource strategy to do our best to mitigate turnover. Losing vital staff greatly impacts our ability to function efficiently as a City and support our community members.

l Ben Lanyon…

Our city’s costs are rising from inflation. The city has four main tools to achieve a balanced budget:

(1) Cut costs

(2) Raise property taxes on existing properties

(3) Improve efficiency of staff

(4) Spread property taxes over a larger number of properties

Each of these is detailed below:

Cutting costs seems like a good idea until you find out that it is not a viable option because of union agreements and existing service contracts. We may achieve some small gains here, but at what cost in terms of staff morale and loss of services?

Raising property taxes on existing properties is the default option for the City. But this option is hardest on the public (you!). I would prefer we minimize this by looking at the last two tools instead.

A much easier and less politically volatile option than cost-cutting is to improve efficiency. I invite you to view the 2022 City staff employee survey which was released under a freedom of information act request ( We clearly have a critical morale problem as evidenced by that report and by 11% staff turnover during 2021. I would start by addressing the specific issues in the employee survey and at the same time removing bottlenecks and friction within City Hall. This works because happier employees with efficient work-flows are always more productive. This allows staff to handle more work with the time they have. They feel better, and as a result they have more positive interactions with the public. But efficiency alone solves nothing in the short term. It must be paired with growth as described next.

When we increase private investment in commercial and industrial zones, this allows more of the tax burden to be shifted away from residential taxpayers. Individual properties do not pay more because the tax burden is spread over a larger number of properties. This also helps with our critical shortage of available industrial land. Sadly, commercial property investment will lag until we have restored safety to downtown (we’ll get there). Expansion of residential properties follows the same logic described above and will help with the housing shortage.

Pair a growth approach with efficiency gains and we will soon be able to afford nice recreational amenities without raising taxes on your home. In summary: efficiency + growth = lower taxes. It is doable and it won’t take long to see the results.

l Sandra Milligan…

As a first priority, we need to implement and enforce a code of conduct so the workplace at City Hall is respectful of the expertise on City Staff. Respectful workplaces, where people love to come to work and feel valued, are more productive workplaces. If the community elects a Council that is primarily progressive and values respect, I would advertise this far and wide through professional networks to say, “The City of Campbell River welcomes you.” We can then work to fill the many vacancies in city hall that currently slows city processes.

A second action is to implement the secondary suite bylaw. In Feb. 2020, the current council blocked that important tool to increase the inventory of affordable housing, which is used in most other BC municipalities. Legal suites increase property tax revenue with very little expense. Similarly creation of a bylaw to allow carriage homes, or tiny houses on large lots would provide another revenue stream, and increase affordable housing inventory.

Multiple opportunities to increase revenue could be realized by hiring a grant writer - most municipalities have one. The Active Transportation Grant is a great example of missed opportunity that could be turned to something more positive – money from other governments paying for our infrastructure! The fund has been available for seven years. Virtually every community on Vancouver Island has received funding except Campbell River. Last Fall, even Port McNeil and Port Hardy each got close to $300,000. Our Council asked City staff to prepare a grant application in 2020, which they did. After months of work, when staff brought the application forward for approval, City Council rejected it, wasting months of City staff time. Council must not ask for staff to spend their time on projects that get scrapped. Staff need grant writing support to ensure we bring funds into our community.

What we do NOT want to do to increase revenue is extend the Urban Containment Boundary

New single-family subdivisions are a net financial loss to communities. A report from Ottawa in 2021 shows that new low-density homes built on undeveloped land COST $465 per person each year to service, over and above what it receives from property taxes and fees.

On the other hand, high-density infill development provides a net GAIN of $141 per person per year. To confirm these numbers locally, I connected with Wally Wells, the Executive Director at Asset Management BC. Wells says: “Any Finance officer in local government would tell you that single family houses do not pay their way.”

We have 1800 units in the September Development Application Status Report. Those developments will happen regardless of who is elected to council. They will happen faster if we have a respectful, progressive council that values and models respectful workplace behaviour to ensure vacancies in City Hall are filled, and employees feel valued.

l Sue Moen…

The staff report referred to in the question also pointed out that council has historically considered only the upcoming year when determining operating budgets and property taxes. Staff recommended in 2019 that council consider at least a three-year plan for gradual tax increases to mitigate the impacts of “big rocks” and to allow taxpayers the opportunity to plan for those increases. This still isn’t happening.

We must extend our operational budget planning horizon to at least five years rather than one. We have a ten-year financial plan but annual review and adjustment don’t appear to consider that in these uncertain times of inter-connected crises, we must plan for financial upheaval. Our decisions must reflect the needs of the community through a social justice lens. Homeowners do benefit from increases in the assessed value of their property. The additional taxes are only assessed on values above the average. This has been accelerating so owners have seen increases that they couldn’t plan for - much of that beyond municipal control. On top of inflationary pressures in the rest of our spending, many owners are challenged to keep up.

The city faces those same inflationary pressures. In order to mitigate the impact of more than reasonable tax increases, we must look at alternate sources of revenues. Ancillary dwelling units and secondary suites increase tax revenue immediately which homeowners can budget for and offset with rental revenues. Fees for service have not been reviewed in any planned manner to date. And there have been minimal increases. These should be reviewed and assessed immediately and restructured and then again, as staff recommended, a policy put in place to ensure the fees are reviewed regularly.

Our Asset Management Plan is close to completion from my understanding of the available documents. This is a critical tool for us to be able to access provincial and federal grants for infrastructure improvements and expansion. I agree with another candidate’s suggestion that the city create a Grants Manager position to coordinate departments and information and write the grants. And council must heed the recommendations from staff for applying for funds to implement strategic priorities.

I don’t yet know all the relevant bylaws and have not read archived financial reports and minutes to understand the whole process and history. I have experience with budgeting processes based on strategic plans and priorities and I understand balance sheets, profit/loss statements and cash flow, so I am in a good position to provide due diligence in stewarding the city’s assets. We must do everything possible to ensure new and maturing Campbell Riverites enjoy the same or improved level of services and amenities that we have enjoyed.

l Claire Moglove...

In the short term, (1-3 years), we should:

1. Make strategic use of the Covid-19 relief funds provided by the Province to municipalities, as recommended by our City financial staff. The City has roughly $2 million in this Covid reserve and using these funds to ease the immediate financial pressure is warranted.

2. Encourage and incentivize growth by, among other things, implementing the recommendations of the City’s very recent (September 2022) Development Approval Process Report. The recommendations seek to streamline development processes which will allow faster growth through development. This in turn will provide significant additional tax revenue for the City.

3. Review various fees and charges in the City - for instance in the recreation department, Campbell River’s fees have not been reviewed in over 10 years and are significantly lower than comparison communities. Similarly for development fees - as an example, major development permit in Campbell is $2,500, in Langford it is $11,425.

4. Continue to look for efficiencies and partnerships - for instance is it possible to combine the playing fields of the City, School District and our First Nations neighbours in a more coordinated manner? We should also take a serious look at more cooperation and consolidation of certain services with the Strathcona Regional District. For instance, the Sportsplex and Community Centre are owned and operated by the City and only City of Campbell River taxpayers contribute to their operation. By contrast, Strathcona Gardens, with the ice rinks and pool, is owned and operated by the Strathcona Regional District and taxpayers from both the City and Area D contribute to its operation. Does this make sense?

5. Undertake a comprehensive review of those funds which the City receives annually from the Federal and Provincial Governments - for instance the City receives $1.4 million annually from the Community Works Fund - also known as “gas tax money”. These funds are basically a “refund” of gas taxes that have been paid in Campbell River at gas pumps. The City receives roughly $900,000 per year in “Gaming Revenue”. These are the funds that are derived from the casino. It is time to have a comprehensive review as to how these funds are allocated in the City. It may be that a portion of these funds can be used to offset the financial pressures that the City will be facing.

6. Take the opportunity to review, in depth, particular service areas to see how the City compares to similar sized communities. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether a service level is reasonable and appropriate without seeing what other communities are doing.

7. Undertake a comprehensive review of the annual contributions to various city reserves. Such contributions are derived from property taxation and we should ensure that the amounts being transferred to reserves are appropriate.

l Susan Sinnott…

My approach to tackling the pressures of maintaining service levels in the city while holding the line on taxes will be:

Clearly defining the end results and limitations that must be achieved in the city. These presently to me are:

1) More housing so fewer people are unhoused, and affordability improves.

2) Safety and livability (with priority on the safety presently)

3) Economic Health (taxpayers need predictable, stable, equitable, transparent, and accountable taxation)

Because we have a crisis that is not met with the status quo, I propose we do things differently. I have an MBA and am a lawyer. I understand management decision making and numbers and statutory limitations. At this point the ‘hands off’ approach to a base operating budget is no longer tenable. We need to have a more in depth back and forth with staff, so the Base Operating Budget and Capital Budget are truly designed to meet the goals set by Council, either as set by the newly elected Council or in the City of Campbell River Strategic Plan.

My experience is that unlike other businesses, a city budget is a set of handcuffs. Once set it is very hard to change, so it is vital it is meeting the challenges we have today. Council and City Staff will have a lot of work, but it will pay off with realigned allocation of resources to better meet our challenges. It will also be a foundation to set the future of the city. Data and comparisons will need to be presented for management decision making. Options given to Council from Staff and recommendations. These will be reviewed, debated, and resolved.

I don’t promote service cuts. I don’t promote tax increases. I do promote innovative thinking and finding solutions to difficult problems. I do promote finding new ways to make money for city priorities and I promote more amenities and liveability.

I like examples, so here are a few:

a) If Staff say there is a barrier arising from an interpretation of the SOCP, then to make amendments to that SOCP as other communities have.

b) Have City Staff focus on revenue sources as opposed to expenses. For example, the city, as landowner, has not kept up with industrial land demand at the Airport as they don’t think like a developer who can see how money is made with up-front costs and land being improved over time.

c) Have staff to advise how much additional tax revenue and DCC charges could be generated if the workload set out in the recent report of files in planning, were expedited.

d) monetize underused property/assets and staff (for example the Fire Department has expertise in CPR training and mechanical ability with equipment and could serve the city staff and other fire departments) we can also provide incentive funds to each department to carry over savings from efficiencies or new revenue sources, so they can fund preferred projects.

l Sean Smyth…

Years ago, the city of Campbell River put itself on a 10-year financial plan. This plan was designed to increase taxes by 2-3% yearly to keep up with inflation. This idea was that if the city maintained a steady slow increase, there would be no significant one-time increases. A former, one-time financial increase occurred when the mill shut down.

This ten-year financial plan was a good idea for a stable city budget but was not without its trade-offs. Over multiple years, the 2-3% annual increase has started to compound significant tax increases for the taxpayer.

The city’s operating budget has increased faster than 2-3% annually. City Council found themselves making cuts, skimming into reserves, and getting creative to cap the annual increase to around 3%. Slowly over time, this has caused the city to “scrape the bone” in its operating costs. This has caused strain on staff and infrastructure planning.

The city is now feeling the stress of an economy inflating at the double to triple the expected 2%. Public sector unions are demanding significant pay increases to keep up with the inflation. That pay increase comes out of the municipal budget. Many of these labour negotiations are conducted by other levels of government, and the city has little input on the outcome, for example, RCMP.

A slow development process has restricted the city’s annual growth of Campbell River to less than 1.4%. This slow development process has capped the non-market growth (new taxpayers to the market) to around half a million dollars annually. Pro-growth communities use this non-market growth to make a difference in operating budgets. A 1% tax increase for Campbell River is about $330,000. If we allowed the city to grow sustainably, we would make up for that 3% annual tax increase.

Allowing more growth will have to be combined with a hard look at efficiencies. This does not mean cuts to staffing or services. Simply how we are allocating staff time and city services? The city spends tens of thousands of dollars on studies and plans; many of these are not followed up on when produced. Instead, we can empower city staff to make decisions and act on them.

The glaring truth is that we cannot continue our current financial plan. The status quo is no longer an option.

l Ferris Stirling…

I tend to agree with many people running in this election about the lack of efficiency and spending directions with many on council and at city hall, and that is a good place to start. The current turnover level is unheard of at 11%. One of the first things we need to address is this high level of turnover. I for one, would support contacting all these employees to find out their reasons for leaving. The pay and benefits are great, this city is amazing, and the community offers a remarkable number of things to do. I have been lucky enough to have lived in Campbell River my entire life and would really like to know why so many people choose to leave what should be considered an incredible job in our city.

Some have mentioned how many open positions there currently are at city hall. I know through attrition that many of the jobs were going to be phased out to help cut down on spending, but it also begs the question; If things are operating currently, why even rehire all these positions. The citizen’s I have spoken with are not happy with the way things are currently run, so that needs to be addressed. The city’s Assistant General Manager recently announced his retirement, and his salary alone would most likely allow 2 more inspectors and permit processing employees which would help with the backlog as well as increase revenues for the city. To currently have 2 inspectors doing the work of 6 isn’t fair to the employees, and do we really need an Assistant General Manager for the city? For example, if the General Manager is away on vacation for 2 weeks, each department has a 6-figure salary manager who should be capable of running their department. A check of the multiple pages of the city “sunshine” list shows how many managers and employees are over the $75,000 salary range. If you hire good people, let them do the job they are trained to do and are paid handsomely for. Campbell River does not need more managers for managers. I believe now more than ever there is enough money in the system; we don’t need more money, we need more ideas. While researching this, I actually found employees on the provincial “sunshine” list ($125,000 benefits and over) who make more than the President of the United States; let that sink in.

Processed permits and building of residential, commercial, and industrial lots around Campbell River increases the tax base and result in more fee’s paid to the city. I also believe that buildings, people, or services that require a substantial amount of city resources be reviewed and charged accordingly by way of bylaws or license fees adjustments. It’s not acceptable for all the citizens of Campbell River to pay higher property taxes due to 70+ fire, ambulance, and police calls to a chronically troubled building. Where is the accountability?

Please consider me on October 15th, and put Campbell River First!

Candidates not responding to the question: Ron Kerr

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