When Dean Fortin picks up the phone, he’s often laughing as if he’s being interrupted in the middle of a funny story.
On more than one occasion, he’s said it’s the job of a city’s mayor to be its biggest cheerleader. This belief is obvious not just in his demeanor at city events but also in his outlook on city affairs.
While mayoral candidate Paul Brown is campaigning on a platform to address what he calls Victoria’s financial crisis, Fortin says the city’s in good financial shape.
“There is no embarrassment in saying we are facing challenges and we need to work with citizens to find solutions,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the sky is falling.”
Top on the list of challenges is the city’s infrastructure deficit, which boils down to a $10 million annual gap between what the city spends on infrastructure and what it needs.
Fortin puts the number in context.
First, it doesn’t take into account any cost sharing opportunities with the federal and provincial governments.
Second, the city must talk to residents about their priorities when it comes to non-essential upgrades, such as a new library or new pool.
“Are there projects that we’re not going to do?” he asks, adding quickly that no examples come to mind.
While a big supporter of light-rail transit for the region, he acknowledges it may not be possible right away.
“There are interim steps,” he said, pointing to high-occupancy vehicle lanes. “I think that’s a fantastic step and I think we should work on it right away. And if that solves our problem, I’m not invested in spending $250 million (on light-rail transit). If it delays that infrastructure expense for a while, perfect.”
But Fortin’s focus has never been on cost cutting. Instead, he’s focused on city building.
He lists affordable housing top among his accomplishments during his first term as mayor.
Over three years, the city has helped to support the creation of 800 affordable units. The city also made a controversial decision to purchase two motels for $5 million. Fortin puts a positive spin on the delayed projects: the 710 Queens St. property already houses 36 people with supports; 120 Gorge Rd. is stalled due to a difference of vision with the housing operator, but “we’re on budget. We’re fine.”
He’s also proud of the many parks and public spaces the city has revitalized.
“It’s really flown under the radar,” he said, pointing to Centennial Square, Fisherman’s Wharf Park, Cecelia Ravine Park and Cridge Park.
Thirdly, he boasts a reduction of 26 per cent in public disorder downtown, thanks largely to a city initiative called the late-night task force, which brought in later bus service, the Bar Watch program and outdoor urinals among others.
Fortin’s platform promises include more of the same, for the most part.
“Now is not the time to back off,” he said of his push for affordable housing. “Now is not the time to do another study. Now is the time to finish the job.”
For instance, he’d like to explore tax incentives for the development of rental housing.
Fortin would also like to continue efforts to make the downtown vibrant, by investing more in festivals and assigning more police officers to the late-nightbeat.
Another new spending item in the plan is city’s economic development strategy, unveiled last month.
The goal is to attract good jobs to the city and generate new revenue for the city. It’s also Fortin’s key strategy to balancing the books.
The road to success, he said, is building “our economic base so we have more people contributing to those costs that we have to do.”
All these investments in building a great city take money at a time when the city budget is strained and residents faced a seven-per-cent tax increase. But Fortin is convinced it’s an investment that will more than pay off.
The reward of growing the residential and business tax base is an estimated high of $16 million per year in new assessed revenue.
While an optimist by nature, Fortin is not always jovial. When council decisions get contentious or divisive, he can be firm and sometimes defensive. The process to replace the Johnson Street Bridge is an example. He also lists it as his biggest regret.
“We learned our citizens want to be involved in the process, “ he says. “We have a responsibility to engage, inform, ensure their info is coming back and at the highest level, they get the choices.”
Fortin readily acknowledges not everyone agrees with the city’s direction. But, he adds that while past councils have had a reputation for inaction, “I think everyone agrees that we’ve been making decisions.”
He ties in a catchphrase he’s fond of saying: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”