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Canada's big-city mayors are wondering: After the stimulus, what's next?

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is slated to deliver the federal budget on March 22.

Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters

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."

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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

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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

I would hope to see a real commitment to understanding that we deliver the services that Canadians use every hour of every day. We do not have the revenue sources or the authority to deliver those services as effectively as we could. If the federal government disappeared today, it would probably be a week or two before most Canadians noticed. If the provincial governments disappeared, unless you were in school or the hospital, it might be a couple days before you noticed. If the municipal governments disappeared, you'd have no transit, no roads, no lights and no clean water. You'd notice because you'd be dead.

I don't care how I get the money, but I need the money. What I would love to see is a long-term reliable funding source, whether it's moving more on the gas tax or ceding a point of the GST so we really have predictability in our funding. I want my own money and the responsibility to be in charge of my own funding. My indication from the federal government is that they're focused on deficit right now and there's not a lot of new money in the pantry. I look forward to them being thoughtful about what they want to do in the future, and I'll take any money they've got now.

Stephen Mandel, Edmonton

I don't think we're going to see much. I think the federal government's been pretty clear that it's time to reduce the deficit. They're going to find ways to cut wherever they can cut, and they're not going to call us about it. Do I think they should? Probably. But is it going to happen? No. Let's be realistic. We need more say. We need to be at the table. We need to have some discussion on how we're going to fund infrastructure in the long term. But I don't see that as an opportunity in the coming future. We're in a real tough place. Property taxes are a very inelastic, unfair, punitive tax. And then we're left to find ways to build infrastructure. It's a tough gig and I take a realistic view of what's going to happen in Ottawa: We're not going to get anything. The fundamental issue is that cities have no position anywhere, we have no real strength. Someone has to give up strength to give us strength and I don't see that happening any time real soon.

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Pat Fiacco, Regina

We have to give the federal government credit because the Building Canada Fund has made a humongous difference, the stimulus funding has made a great difference, but that all ends now. Then what? That's going to have a huge economic impact. Do we want to see the construction industry go in the tank? My worry is that there's just a complete drop-off, that there's no mention of the future. That concerns me. There needs to be some messaging for us there that we're on the right track. This government has made it very clear that we are creatures of the province, based on the constitution. But I think politicians really need to pay attention, both provincial and federal, to the fact that the majority of Canadians live in cities. We could make this country a lot better if the federal government would actually allow municipal leaders to get involved. Man oh man, we've got this whole thing backwards. They don't consider us important politically at all. You just have to look at the distribution of votes to see that. It's very backwards and I think Canadians are starting to pay attention to that.

Sam Katz, Winnipeg

Our crumbling roads and bridges are a top priority for Winnipeggers. We're facing a current $3.8-billion infrastructure deficit, and over the next 10 years another $3.4-billion. Our recreational facilities are falling apart, our community centres, swimming pools and skating rinks. They were built 40 years ago and were not properly maintained. It's embarrassing. But we don't have any real say. When they came up with the gas tax, the money was going to flow through the province and they were going to take a service charge off the top. We yelled and screamed for the money to come directly to us. In the end, it flowed through the provinces with no service charge. So you can see how these shake out. Laying blame is a silly thing. But we're facing a problem and we need to find a solution at all levels of government. Municipalities cannot do it on their own.

GĂ©rald Tremblay, Montreal

I am concerned about the Canada-infrastructure program and hope the federal budget includes permanent funding after 2014. The most important issues are reducing traffic gridlock, addressing gaps in public transport networks and repairing our housing network. In order to succeed, we need clear objectives, long-term funding strategies and co-ordinated policies and programs among our three levels of government.

Dennis O'Keefe, St. John's

Part of the GST, maybe 1 per cent, devoted to cities would dramatically change our ability to finance the work that needs to be done. The worst thing they could do in this budget is not address the looming infrastructure deficit and not put in place a permanent program that would enable cities and towns to realistically deal with the decaying situation of roads and bridges and water systems and sidewalks. How they do it is up to them. This is a problem that is heading down the track like a freight train. The only thing that wouldn't work is not to do anything. Trust me, the money would not go astray. It would be put to work immediately and it would create all kinds of employment, too.

Peter Kelly, Halifax

April is Volunteer Appreciation Month, and a very strong element of acknowledgement from the federal government would be a volunteer tax credit. Almost 12.5 million Canadians over the age of 15 volunteer and collectively contribute over 2.1 billion hours, the equivalent of 1.1 million full-time jobs. The tax credit would allow individuals non-cash tax deductions for personal time volunteered. We'd also like an electricity and heating exemption from the HST. That's an issue in this country as we're just going through our winter months and reviewing the cost of our heating bills, I'm sure people have felt those increases. But what would be really appreciated would be a minister responsible for municipal relations. That would acknowledge municipalities as another level of government, because we are not acknowledged under the constitution. Surely there's room in this day and age for a ministerial process responsible for that relationship.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

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