Binkley - Cities matter


Cities matter

'Never have municipal issues had such prominence in Parliament'

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

Amidst all the sniping and negative attacks, there was one issue the parties campaigning in the May 2 election agreed on — the federal government has to help cities expand transit and rebuild roads, water systems and public buildings.

Not surprisingly, the parties had different versions of how financial assistance for cities and towns should be shaped. But the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) is hoping to translate that wide spread political support into a long term plan that will get their infrastructure brought up to 21stCentury standards, regardless of what party is in power in the future.

The FCM did its best to highlight the attention its issues were receiving and the parties’ platforms on municipal issues—complimenting the good and knocking the bad.

It attracted some media attention for its work but little recognition of the sea change in Parliament toward urban policies. A decade ago, federal politicians didn’t talk about municipal issues. Cities and towns were creatures of the provinces and were supposed to live within the property taxes they could levy.

However, a widening gap between municipal responsibilities and revenues became apparent to federal politicians. A report from the Conference Board of Canada, which outlined the economic importance of big cities to national economies, also made a big impression on the government. The bottom line is that it’s important for the country to keep these economic engines well tuned up.

Former prime minister Paul Martin started the process by allocating 2% of the national gas tax to municipal infrastructure projects. The Harper government added a lot of octane by making cities eligible for infrastructure support for the Building Canada and Economic Action Plan. The June 6 budget included a provision to make the municipal share of the federal gas tax permanent.

A couple of weeks after the election, FCM’s annual meeting attracted Denis Lebel, a former mayor and the new minister of Communities and Infrastructure, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Liberal Leader Bob Rae. They all promised to support municipal infrastructure programs.

Berry Vrbanovic, FCM’s new president, wants to take advantage of this good will. Never have municipal issues had such prominence in Parliament.

He’s convinced the government to create a Municipal Infrastructure Forum to discuss ongoing funding plans. Mayor Pat Fiacco of Regina, who organized a national infrastructure summit last fall, and Mayor Pauline Quinlan of Bromont, Que. will co-chair the Forum.

In addition to representatives from Infrastructure Canada, Vrbanovic expects private sector organizations will also have members on the Forum by the time it is in full operation by the fall.

Its main object is finding a replacement for the Building Canada Fund that expires in 2014. The Fund has been a major source of infrastructure financing in recent years and FCM has identified its pending expiration as a major challenge. Lebel said the government wants to conclude an agreement.

Other key issues are aging roads and bridges, public transit, policing costs and preserving some of the 700 megahertz radio spectrum for municipal fire, police and ambulance services, Vrbanovic notes. Other key issues are finding affordable housing and reducing the cost of the homeless in urban areas.

A study done for FCM has suggested there is a backlog of $125 billion worth of infrastructure renewal in Canada with almost as much new building required to keep up with the demands of residents of Canada’s expanding urban areas.

When the Harper government cut $45 million in green infrastructure funding for cities in mid June, Vrbanociv said the move was disappointing but he remained optimistic of obtaining the long term funding agreement.

“We’re never happy when the municipal sector sees a loss of funding dollars,” he said. “We have to make sure it’s not a trend.”

Olivia Chow, the NDP communities critic, said the cut is “a broken promise to generations of Canadians. It was intended to provide $1-billion in funding for much-needed projects that would create jobs, address our massive infrastructure deficit, and make our communities more sustainable.

“There is no extra funding for critical needs, such as rebuilding the Champlain Bridge in Montreal, the Evergreen line in Vancouver, the Convention Centre in Halifax, or for cities and communities hoping to maintain and repair bridges, roads and sewer systems,” she said.

“On top of it all, cities are struggling to pay for upgrades to their sewage treatment mandated by the government’s national waste-water strategy.”

The Green Fund wasn’t intended for most of the projects Chow listed. It helps with projects designed to improve environmental protection, conserve energy, or encourage the development of alternate energy sources, Vrbanovic said.

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