Education, taxes and economic growth are the three most important issues facing the City of Brandon, according to a new Probe Research poll conducted exclusively for the Sun.
A random sampling of 400 Brandon adults were surveyed via telephone between Jan. 16 and Jan. 23.
"Education just shot up the charts," said Curtis Brown, senior research associate with Probe Research Inc. "Going from very minor public concern, mentioned by less than five per cent of the public most years, suddenly now it’s 16 per cent …That really stands out."
As enrolment numbers continue to rise in Brandon schools, the division is facing pressure in terms of physical space and resources to deal with expanding English as an Additional Language programs.
"Obviously there’s some pressures with the number of EAL instructors that have to be hired in Brandon to help students who have come to Brandon from other countries," Brown said. "You’re seeing huge pressures on the school system."
Tied with education as the No. 1 concern at 16 per cent, are taxes and economic growth.
Compared to previous years, the issue of economic growth/jobs/economy is holding steady as a consistent concern for residents.
Mayor Shari Decter Hirst said economic growth is a key objective for the city this year.
"Working with the community, the chamber of commerce, post-secondary institutions, business leaders to pull together an aggressive strategy," she said. "We want to grow the city and therefore we need to have the economy and the economic strategy in place that underpins that."
Taxes remain a concern (16 per cent). However, the number dropped significantly from 2012 (32 per cent.)
The city budget wasn’t as contentious this year as it was in 2012. Taxpayers are looking at a mill rate increase of 0.98 per cent this year, compared to 2012’s net increase of 4.9 per cent.
"We put a lot of effort into addressing the issues that were raised in 2012," Decter Hirst said.
Meanwhile, infrastructure came in as the next most important issue facing Brandon at 12 per cent.
Earlier this month, the Brandon Chamber of Commerce and MNP released the results of the latest business climate survey.
When asked what the city’s next construction priority should be, business leaders overwhelmingly responded with infrastructure (42 per cent). The survey sample included 200 chief executive officers, presidents, business owners and designated senior corporate officers in Brandon and the surrounding area.
Decter Hirst said she was surprised that the Probe results didn’t show a higher number in the infrastructure category.
"I know how often I’m talking to residents about sidewalks and potholes," she said. "The Eighth Street bridge has certainly been a topic of conversation as has the Daly (Overpass)," she said.
Decter Hirst noted that between the 2012 and 2013 budgets, $1 million of additional infrastructure funds have been made available for things like potholes, water main breaks and sidewalk repairs.
"It looks like we’re meeting some of that demand in the community for infrastructure," she said. "The expensive items on infrastructure are what the city is going to be having to deal with now in the next few years, with bridges and water treatment and expanded water and sewer capacity."
Crime concerns in Brandon are once again coming in very low, at nine per cent.
"That’s something where Brandon has especially stood out," Brown said. "We ask this question all the time when we do quarterly polling in Manitoba, and (crime) is always right at the top or very close to the top of public concerns when you take Manitoba as a whole."
Brown said Winnipeg drives up that number.
"(Crime) is not considered the prominent issue in Brandon the way it is in Winnipeg, which is really sort of an interesting comparison between the two cities," Brown said.
Decter Hirst said she was very pleased to see that residents’ perception of Brandon as a safe city is reinforced in the poll results.
In the city’s tentative 2013 budget, council approved a $600,000 cut in labour costs across the organization, with a focus on protective services.
Ten per cent of respondents said affordable housing was the most important concern, compared to 28 per cent in 2010.
In the MNP business climate survey, 10.5 per cent of businesses leaders said housing/affordable housing should be the next major construction project for the city.
Despite the lower number in the poll, Decter Hirst said affordable housing remains a priority for the city.
"We know our city is going to be getting bigger, and so where do those people go to live?" she said. "We also know that it’s getting more expensive to own a home in Brandon, the average house price is $200,000, which again puts it that much further out of reach of some residents."
Affordable housing is part of the city’s economic development strategy, and Decter Hirst said it’s also part of being a "compassionate community."
"People need a secure roof over their heads," she said. "We’ve got young families moving into the city and these young families need a place to raise their kids."
Council approved a $75,000 increase to the affordable housing reserve in the 2013 budget, bringing this year’s contribution up to $200,000. The total reserve will now be at roughly $600,000.