In a series of interviews over the past two weeks, Canada's big-city mayors have been making it known that they want some attention - and a lot of cash - in next week's federal budget.
With stimulus spending drying up and the federal Building Canada program slated to end in 2014, cities are facing an infrastructure deficit currently pegged at $123-billion, a price tag no degree of property-tax hikes can hope to cover.
"I think this particular budget is a moment of truth in the relationship between our federal governments and cities," said Carl Zehr, mayor of Kitchener, Ont., and chair of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities' Big City Mayors Caucus. "If the money's not there, that will say a lot to me in terms of their sincerity about moving forward with a continuing relationship."
The FCM met with federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in January, when they expressed their wish to have the gas tax made permanent through legislation. But with a federal election looming, the cities are hoping their demographic (80 per cent of Canadians now live in urban centres) will persuade Ottawa to give them even more, creating additional sources of long-term funding that will flow directly to each city hall.
And some, such as Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, were not above suggesting why this might be worth Prime Minister Stephen Harper's while.
"It would be a very smart political thing for the federal government to acknowledge cities in this political environment," he said. "If you want to be crass and political about it, where is a majority government found? In the big cities in this country."
But the mayor of Canada's largest city stayed conspicuously mum on the subject. Toronto's Rob Ford declined to share his hopes for the federal budget, saying in an e-mail only that he hopes it shows "respect for taxpayers' money."
That doesn't mean, however, he isn't making his wishes known. A close family friend of Mr. Flaherty's, the Toronto mayor may have a more direct line to power than any of his colleagues. And he's not above making his demands political. He's already threatened to unleash "Ford Nation" on Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty if the province doesn't increase the city's funding. And in Mr. Harper's case, harnessing the new mayor's popularity could be a good thing. His election last fall demonstrated, with resounding clarity, that Toronto - and especially the riding-rich areas outside the downtown core - will vote conservative when convinced that's in its best interests.
Here's what others had to say:
Gregor Robertson, Vancouver
For Canada to remain economically competitive, we have to keep pace by investing in our cities. We see countries around the world doing that aggressively and Canada has among the lowest percentages of tax revenue collected at city level. Scandinavian cities, some of them collect all of the revenue and distribute a portion to the federal government. Canada's definitely among the worst in terms of cities having the tools and revenues to realize their potential. And that speaks to our economic competitiveness. We're at a point where we need a new model and the old system has run it's course. We've had a surge of stimulus investment that was helpful these past years, but the signal from Ottawa is that's over. That means we're all asking questions about what's next and calling for a really aggressive approach to changing the way cities are funded. If there's no new money committed in a constrained budget, we need to roll up our sleeves together and figure out a new model. We can't stick our heads in the sand and think that shutting down investment in cities is a good strategy for Canada.
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary