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Health care tops councillor candidates debate

Bringing 24-hour health care to Houston was the most talked-about issue among councillor candidates at the Nov. 8 municipal election forum.

A long-standing effort to bring 24-hour health care to Houston was the most talked-about issue among councillor candidates at the Nov. 8 municipal election forum.

Incumbent Shane Brienen, the first councillor candidate to speak, began by noting what a large audience turned up to listen and ask questions.

“I’ve never seen a crowd quite this big for all-candidates, so thank you for coming out,” he said Brienen.

Brienen said that previous councils have made around-the-clock care a top priority, and have already spent at least a dozen years trying to get it.

That service is critical to Houston’s night-shift workers, heavy equipment operators and to people who work in forests far from town, he said.

Not having 24-hour care is also keeping some people from moving to Houston, he added, estimating that roughly 200 people commute to Houston from Smithers or Burns Lake.

Council incumbent Bob Wheaton echoed those concerns and praised an idea floated this September by B.C.’s health minister—to have the province pay for foreign doctors’ mandatory internships in return for signing a five-year contract in a B.C. town in need of doctors.

Dawn Potvin, a new contender for council, said that working at the Houston health centre she has seen that recently added care beds have already meant fewer families have to drive out to Smithers for care.

Potvin also welcomed new specialist services at the local clinic and said she would join the call for expanded services. Still, she said she’s also a realist.

“We are not going to have a six-floor hospital with a surgical ward in Houston.”

Hank Buursema, an incumbent with 19 years on council, said adding more extended care beds is an important next step for Houston seniors.

“Our seniors should be able to retire here, and continue to live in Houston among family and friends,” he said.

Buursema added that the District should build more sidewalks like the one on 11th Street and widen the sidewalks by the Health Centre and up Mountain View Drive.

Jonathan Van Barneveld, who is finishing a UNBC forestry degree, said Houston could work more closely with the university and its nursing program to better staff its health centre.

Shifting to the economy, Barneveld summed up a position echoed by many candidates for council and for mayor.

“We have some of the basics, but we don’t have all of the basics,” he said. “And that’s true for health care, social services and of course retail.”

To secure the local economy, Van Barneveld said Houston needs to look ahead to its future timber supply, which is likely to drop after the beetle-killed wood is gone.

Van Barneveld added that Houston relies too much on forestry already. He highlighted the role local entrepreneurs can play in diversifying the economy.

“We can’t totally rely on external businesses to come to town and save the day,” he said.

Council incumbent Rick Lundrigan noted the work the previous council did to keep property tax increases to one, one-and-a-half, and zero per cent in the last three years.

Lundrigan also said Houston is well-situated to have an inland port—a hub for container trucks heading to and from Prince Rupert.

“Logbook-wise, it works out very well,” he said.

Brienen also singled out the Prince Rupert port as the northwest project most likely to bring more people to Houston.

“If you look at anywhere that they’ve ever put a port in, the area grows,” he said, adding that the District can anticipate that with “shelf-ready” projects.

Two of Houston’s eight council candidates did not attend the forum—Tim Smith and Michalle Jolly. Both had pre-written speeches read by moderator Ted Beck.

Tim Smith apologized for missing the forum, writing “I am in camp working on my dream job as a hunting guide.” Smith has recently retired, and said he now has the time to serve as councillor and make the local economy his top priority.

Candidate Michalle Jolly also apologized, writing that she was unable to attend because her seven-year-old son had fallen sick and was in hospital.

In her speech, Jolly praised recent additions to Houston’s health care services and referred to a 2010 Community Capacity report led by former councillor Bill Arkinstall.

That report set out a long list of services—such as public transit and a safe house—that Houston needs to better care for those living on low incomes.

“Each of these concerns affects the life of all Houston residents,” she said.

The crowd last Monday night was mostly quiet during candidates’ speeches, but Shane Brienen won a strong round of applause when he closed by telling residents to phone him whenever they had a problem.

“You want me to come over and look at where we drove over your front yard or piled snow or broke your street light, I’ll show up there—I enjoy that.”