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union of b.c. municipalities convention

B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix is delivering a keynote speech to a business audience, aimed at soothing concerns about what an NDP government might mean for the economy.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

When more than 1,500 B.C. municipal politicians gather for their annual meeting every fall, the premier's speech is usually the big attraction.

But this year, no one is expecting the kind of policy-changing, money-giving announcements from Christy Clark that Gordon Campbell delivered in many of his 11 appearances before the gathering.

Ms. Clark doesn't have the time or the money to change much as she heads toward the scheduled May election, say experienced municipal politicians who'll be attending the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Victoria starting Monday.

"There's no hope for anything in Christy's speech," said Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard, a past UBCM president. "Anything that needs legislation is not on. What could she deliver on?"

Instead, Ms. Clark's opponent, NDP Leader Adrian Dix, scheduled to speak the day before Ms. Clark's convention-closing speech Friday, is likely to get as much or more attention.

"There will be more than the usual focus on what he has to say," said Kelowna Councillor Robert Hobson, another former president.

Surrey Councillor Barbara Steele agreed: "It used to be we were all waiting for Gordon to tell us what we were going to get. Now, there's so much uncertainty and everybody is probably hedging their bets."

The convention also promises to be more politically polarized than usual. Many resolutions won't have much to do with city government but a lot to do with what are likely to become provincial campaign issues.

That will put it in a league with two other UBCM conventions – also held in Victoria – where the province appeared poised for a sea change. One, the 1991 convention, held a month before the Social Credit party and premier Rita Johnston were wiped out; the other, the 2000 convention, where then-NDP premier Ujjal Dosanjh was booed by protesters outside the convention, a few months before his government was crushed in the May 2001 election.

This year, delegates will once again be scrutinizing the speeches from the two political leaders for clues as to what they might give or take away from cities.

One hot topic municipal politicians will be focusing on is funding for the Lower Mainland's battered transportation agency, TransLink.

There has already been some talk the past week among Lower Mainland mayors about whether it's better to hold off on agreeing to any property-tax increase for next year – something that TransLink announced last week it is counting on to help fund the 2013 transit plan – because of the impending provincial election.

Langley Mayor Peter Fassbender said it was clear at the mayors' council meeting last week that there's a contingent of mayors willing to "sit back and wait nine months."

Mr. Fassbender believes that's a "crazy" approach to maintaining the system. However, he acknowledges that other mayors are calculating that it's foolish to agree to the property tax when a new NDP government might be willing to come up with a different revenue stream for TransLink, like carbon-tax revenue. Mr. Dix and other NDP MLAs have talked about that possibility.

Politicians will also be listening for any hint that Mr. Dix might favour their requests for new revenue on other fronts. The UBCM's list of resolutions to be voted on at the convention includes requests from one northern city to share in the province's natural-gas revenues; from one southern city to get a bigger share of casino revenues; and a general request to have more say in the province's review of municipal revenues and business taxes.

Mr. Leonard says that, unlike many other municipal politicians, he believes it's highly unlikely that federal and provincial governments facing deficits will hand over a slice of their pie to cities.

What he'll be listening for in Mr. Dix's speech is whether there are any signs cities will lose any more.

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