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Calgary's Mayor Naheed Nenshi in Toronto on Wednesday September 21, 2011. (Chris Young for The Globe and Mail./Chris Young for The Globe and Mail.)
Calgary's Mayor Naheed Nenshi in Toronto on Wednesday September 21, 2011. (Chris Young for The Globe and Mail./Chris Young for The Globe and Mail.)

Looking for the Nenshi effect on Alberta's campaign trail Add to ...

He’s avoided backing a candidate, but Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is pushing an issue into the spotlight of the Alberta election campaign: cities.

Mr. Nenshi has long been an advocate for an overhaul of Canada’s taxation system, which sees cities burdened with providing many of the day-to-day services in a community but given little taxation and revenue power to pull it off. In one figure he cites often, the City of Calgary gets 8 cents of every dollar Calgarians pay in taxes – the rest goes to the federal and provincial government.

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He wants a new deal, and is leveraging the election to get answers from the province’s would-be MLAs.

“It may seem a bit weird to have the mayor of a city talking about a provincial election, but this election is absolutely crucial,” Mr. Nenshi says in a video on CitiesMatter.ca, a website his office launched where he has listed 10 questions and posted the responses of Alberta’s five political parties. “Too often, we have a provincial government that doesn’t recognize the importance of cities. For Alberta to be successful, for Canada to be successful, we need strong cities.”

The parties now find themselves talking about cities, infrastructure and police funding in a closely fought race, one where Calgary is an essential battleground between the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose. For instance, the PCs, NDP, Liberals and upstart Alberta Party support the notion of charters granting new powers to cities – Edmonton and Calgary in particular – while Wildrose would redo the Municipal Government Act.

And Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Nenshi held a news conference, saying at no time that he can remember have municipal issues been on the provincial radar during election time. And he reminded leaders of the stakes at a time when the major parties are battling over seats in his city, the biggest in Alberta.

“Whoever wins Calgary is going to win the election … whoever can figure out what the people of Calgary need from their provincial government is going to win the next election,” Mr. Nenshi said.

His analysis was mixed, finding ups and downs with each party. On funding, he prefers Wildrose’s infrastructure plan, which would send 10 per cent of all tax revenue, plus 10 per cent of surpluses, to municipalities – the PC program, long-term, has no defined funding and only vague promises to extend programs. However, the mayor warned, Wildrose’s system is far from perfect and would rely on surpluses. “It is not predictable, and it is not stable, which were the criteria we were looking for – but it is money,” Mr. Nenshi said.

The PCs introduced three-year funding cycles for municipalities, would extend the Municipal Sustainability Initiative fund and emphasized their commitment to infrastructure funding through the Green Transit Incentives Program infrastructure fund. “Their response on this one was a long lit of things they’ve already done,” Mr. Nenshi said, calling the PC request for greater provincial oversight as “a bit weird.”

Wildrose would bring in its 10-10 plan and not renew programs enacted by the PCs, namely the MSI fund and Green TRIP fund. “They’re good programs,” Mr. Nenshi said.

The Liberals would phase out MSI and start a Municipal Heritage Fund, sending an undetermined portion of revenue to an endowment, with municipalities (not just Calgary and Edmonton) receiving 75 cents of every dollar of interest revenue. They’d also open the door to an optional one-cent tax added to the GST, the revenue of which would go to cities, and boost a carbon levy that would send money to cities. Mr. Nenshi said it was hard to calculate what all that funding would amount to. “It’s like figuring out exactly what you’re going to make on your stock-market investments,” Mr. Nenshi said.

The NDP have pledged to increase certain resource royalties, and would send an undetermined portion to cities – but also said the infrastructure requests needed to be identified. “Good news to the New Democrats, we know what those needs are,” Mr. Nenshi said.

The centrist Alberta Party, meanwhile, would introduce five-year predictable funding cycles, extend Green TRIP and make MSI “more accountable and transparent.” Mr. Nenshi said the Alberta Party is presenting a “tradeoff” by sending more education property tax funding, but leaving the city more exposed to property taxes, which Mr. Nenshi says are a “terrible, terrible” way to tax.

Only the Wildrose plan would certainly help Calgary build its southeast LRT extension, he said, but it would take a decade to get there. The Liberal plan may work, while the PC plan wouldn’t without one-time infrastructure grants, which the PCs have long relied on as a funding model, Mr. Nenshi said.

He noted the PCs were the only party to start work on a new deal for cities immediately after the election. “I do say to all of the other parties that if you are elected, this needs to be a major priority and work needs to begin on it right away,” Mr. Nenshi said.

“The good news? There’s more money for infrastructure that people need in all five plans. The question is: is it enough for extremely expensive infrastructure like LRT?” Mr. Nenshi said.

He noted all five of the parties “don’t seem to really get” the importance of regional planning, adding the amount of time spent on the issue is “the biggest surprise of my job.”

In particular, he dismissed the Wildrose plan to start a new regional planning program. “The funny thing is the new process they’re outlining is exactly the same as the process we’ve gone through the last five years with slightly different names. I’m not sure they understand the complexity of this issue,” he said. As for the PCs – “well, let’s just say it’s difficult to get a straight answer.”

Mr. Nenshi has urged voters to dig into the parties’ municipal policies before casting a ballot.

“It’s up to citizens now. It’s up to every single Albertan,” Mr. Nenshi said. “So I say to Albertans, vote. Please vote.”

 

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