'I am the mayor of a city that has more people than five provinces and, depending on how well the Jets do, some day it will probably have more people than six provinces," says Calgary's puckish Naheed Nenshi, cracking a joke about Manitoba. "And yet I have the exact same decision-making authority and powers at my city council as the mayor of, you know, Rosebud, Alberta. And it just doesn't work."
Mr. Nenshi, who has led his city since 2010, argues that Canadian cities need more money and more power to meet the challenges of the 21st century. As it stands now, he notes, cities are creatures of their provincial governments. That arrangement may have worked when Canada was still an agrarian society, but today, when it is one of the most urbanized societies in the world, it makes little sense.
"The orders of government that are responsible for delivering the service don't have control of the revenue to deliver the service," he said on Wednesday during a visit to Toronto. Cities have to go begging to the provinces for money to spend on expensive projects such as building rapid transit or renewing public housing.
Federal and provincial governments, with their greater tax-raising power, transfer money, often grudgingly, to municipalities so they can cover their needs. "You end up with these industries of cheque writers," says Mr. Nenshi, "and it's just not efficient for anybody."
Cities demand more. The provinces and the feds say they can't afford it. "Politicians play an endless game of pass the buck," he says. He gives Calgary's light-rail transit system as an example. "People will come to me and say, 'Mayor, we need the LRT expanded.' And I'll say, 'You're right, we do. Go see the premier.' And the premier will say, 'You're right, we need more LRT. Go tell the mayor to build more LRT.' And we can do it all day and the end result is that the LRT doesn't get built."
Mr. Nenshi and his Edmonton counterpart, Don Iveson, have been lobbying Alberta's Conservative government for change. They want new civic charters that would give cities more decision-making and revenue-generating powers. So far, they have had only limited success. Premier Jim Prentice signed an agreement with the mayors earlier this month to work toward a new "fiscal framework" for the cities, but said city charters "will in no way endorse or permit the creation of new taxation powers."
Mr. Nenshi insists he is not discouraged. With the future of their political dynasty at stake, he says, the Alberta Conservatives have to work with the cities. Similarly, the federal Conservatives are coming to recognize that staying in power depends on winning votes in the big urban areas. The time, in other words, is ripe.
We will see. Cities have been arguing for years now that they need new powers and revenues. Mr. Nenshi's push echoes a campaign a decade ago by Toronto's David Miller and other mayors to get more attention and resources from higher levels of governments. Cities ended up with a share of the federal gas tax and Toronto got more taxation and self-governance powers from the province.
But the federal government is just coming out of deficit country and many provinces, including Ontario, are fighting stubborn budget deficits. Whether they are ready for a grand new deal with the cities is not clear.
Mr. Nenshi is pressing his case all the same. Big Canadian cities are having a hard time just paying for their commitments to provide ordinary services, much less make needed long-term investments in essential infrastructure. It's not realistic, says Mr. Nenshi, to ask them to find all the money just by raising property taxes or trimming fat in their operations.
Whether it comes in the form or taxing powers or sustained funding from senior governments, says Mr. Nenshi, they need "stable, predictable and long-term revenues."