Questions arise from time to time about City Council's leadership on the drug issue in our city. Residents are understandably frustrated or disturbed about the extent to which our city, like many others, has been affected by the growing epidemic of drug addiction.
Unfortunately, a recent Maclean's report has added confusion rather than clarity to the situation. Using overall crime statistics, the report ranks Lethbridge 19th among what they describe as the most dangerous places in Canada. The online version ranks different types of crime, and I've heard from some local residents who mistakenly believed that Lethbridge ranked 3rd on that list, which is not the case. The study methodology needs to be better understood. We are concerned that a stolen credit card used ten times generates ten times the impact of a single murder, and creates an inaccurate statement about safety in our city. The increase in drug-related theft and fraud is very much a concern, but we don't believe it is accurate to say our city is unsafe.
Since 2015, we on City Council have been advocating to higher orders of government for services that are essential to providing a continuum of supports at the local level to deal with the scale of the current crisis. Specifically, we have advocated for additional detox beds beyond the eight that recently opened in Lethbridge as well as a safe sobering site and permanent supportive housing. We have communicated these needs in writing and in person, with provincial Cabinet ministers as well as the Alberta Premier. We remain hopeful our advocacy efforts will produce positive results.
In addition, we have responded to requests from Lethbridge Police Chief Rob Davis by:
- advocating to our federal justice minister for tougher penalties for drug traffickers
- advocating to our provincial justice minister and solicitor general for new provincial legislation to permit lawful intervention, transportation and detention of those addicted to drugs and visibly using illegal drugs in public places to safe sobering facilities
- contacting the chief federal prosecutor in Edmonton to request a dedicated federal Crown Prosecutor in Lethbridge who can devote more time to dealing with drug-related cases
- recognizing that Lethbridge represents only two per cent of Alberta's population, we have rallied support from our political allies which include the mayors of 21 other mid-sized Alberta cities, the mayors of Calgary and Edmonton, and the Blood Tribe Chief and Council, as well as the mayors and reeves of southern Alberta.
Council is also leading and funding the current community consultation process that's devoted to developing a community-driven, community-based drug strategy. This process began with listening to our community. On Nov. 5, consultants leading the process presented a What We Heard report to City Council members based on comments received from 288 participants who attended facilitated sessions in early October. These comments provide insight into community impacts of the drug crisis as well as ideas for potential solutions.
According to the report, the emotional toll was the impact mentioned most often by participants, followed by impacts on business, a decrease in their sense of safety, the cost and resources required to deal with the crisis, an increase in crime, and needle debris. Emotional impacts mentioned most often included fears about personal or community safety, helplessness at the overall situation, a sense of loss for what used to be, and undesirable changes such as the sense of divisions in the community.
Participants also identified several issues that need resolution. Most often mentioned was a lack of services for those with addictions, a lack of enforcement and prosecution, and differences in perceptions of the drug crisis. Suggested solutions mentioned most often focused on enforcement and the justice system; followed by adding, integrating or consolidating addiction and recovery services; establishing or expanding facilities; and providing better education.
The complete What We Heard report is available at www.lethbridge.ca/DrugStrategy along with details on the work done so far as well as what's still to be done.
Nov. 19-23, as part of our week-long operating budget deliberations as Finance Committee, Council members will consider a request by the Lethbridge Police Service for an additional $3 million over the next four years. This funding would provide them with additional capacity to deal with drug-related issues around our city and, in particular, in our downtown.
Leading up to this process, Council members wanted to hear from residents about City services and how current service levels compare with their own priorities. We're grateful to the several hundred people who took advantage of the online and in-person opportunities offered during September and October to provide feedback.
In May, City Council gave direction to our administration to prepare a draft budget that would maintain current service levels, absorb inflation and community growth pressures, and provide us with a program-based framework that spells out the value residents would receive for any new dollars invested. We enter budget deliberations facing upward tax pressure of 1.6 per cent, on average, each of the next four years to continue providing the services we provide today and to address the additional operating costs of capital projects scheduled for completion, such as ATB Centre-Phase 2.
On top of this, there is a lengthy list of new initiatives that if approved would push the annual average tax increase up to 6.3 per cent – which would not at all be in line with the direction we provided last spring.
On one hand, we hear from some residents that property taxes are too high, while on the other hand, we hear from others who want us to devote more resources, for example, to deal with community safety concerns. Finding an appropriate, affordable balance will be a challenge for us next week. In the meantime, we are still open to hearing your comments and perspectives.
In closing, I would like to invite you to the 18th annual Bright Lights Festival this evening in Galt Gardens to kick of the Christmas shopping season in our downtown. Festivities are scheduled from 5:30-9:30 p.m. and will include free hayrides, coffee, popcorn, hot chocolate – and of course, a visit from Santa!
Mayor Chris Spearman
November 16, 2018