Archive for the ‘Urban Affairs’ Category

CITIES’ AGENDA ‘ABOUT THE MONEY’ MISSES THE MARK

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

When the FCM big city mayors caucus met in Ottawa recently, their call for more federal spending on affordable housing and infrastructure got second billing to Rob Ford joining his colleagues for the first time since his election three years ago.

Ottawa Citizen City Hall columnist Joanne Chianello wrote that it was not surprising that the mayors’ demands were overshadowed in the media by the Rob Ford sideshow since “there has never been an FCM meeting that didn’t end in cities’ calling for more infrastructure money from the federal government.”

Normally I wouldn’t quibble with a columnist taking some liberties with the historical record to make a rhetorical point – particularly since it has been true for the last few years — but in this case it obscured the real story from the mayors’ meeting.

To get at it, we have to step back a decade to the early days of the cities’ push for a new deal from the federal government.

Back then, FCM news releases typically ended with references about a new deal for cities having to be “about more than money” and the need for a municipal “seat at the table”.

For the mayors, getting that seat at the table was at least as important as increased federal funding for infrastructure or housing. They wanted to stop being cast in the role of supplicants of federal largesse.

With a federal government and Prime Minister–Paul Martin–ostensibly looking for “transformative change”, they argued that above all, a new deal had to be about a new political relationship that recognized the growing importance of cities in Canada’s political, social and economic landscape.

And ending their cities’ status as the poor relations of the Canadian federation was behind the mayors’ call for the so-called gas tax transfer, which would become the centrepiece of the new deal.

Of course the gas tax transfer was about money – a lot of it. But for the mayors it was also a new institutional arrangement that would recognize and formalize a federal interest in cities that went well beyond the limits imposed by our 19th century constitution.

The real story from the recent Ottawa meeting of the big city mayors is not so much the antics of the Toronto mayor or whether he was a distraction. It’s that we may be witnessing a return to the “mayors-as-supplicants” model of municipal-federal relations. And that’s bad news for cities.

Of course the mayors don’t see themselves on bended knee when they come to Ottawa.  But when you frame the cities’ agenda as being about federal money, you’re playing Ottawa’s game, and in this game, the federal government is top dog.

Settling for the status quo carries with it two serious problems for Canada’s cities: first it means reducing the federal role and interest in cities to investments in infrastructure and puts the multitude of cross-jurisdictional issues that play out in cities on the back burner; two it suggest that Canada’s mayors accept a return to a 19th century vision of federalism that belies Canada’s urban present and future.

The greatest political gains made by municipal governments over the last decade came as a result of a thoughtful, passionate and effective cities’ campaign and narrative focused on the central role of cities in an evolving Canada.

It all went south with the 2008 recession and the promise of mucho federal infrastructure cash.

The last five years saw the largest federal infrastructure investments ever in Canada’s cities.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that on the national scene, the political clout of Canada’s big city mayors is probably the lowest it’s been in over a decade.

The mayors cannot be blamed for embracing the opportunity to get the lion’s share of  stimulus spending.  But focusing 24/7 on infrastructure (and continuing to do so now) served to narrowcast the political relationship and move the discussion away from the core issue the mayors had been pushing for years: fixing an outdated institutional system.

With a federal election a little more that a year away, the mayors are likely starting to think of how to best jockey for position in the run-up.  If their last meeting is any indication, for Canada’s big city mayors, the future will continue to be painted the colour of money.

 

RE-THINKING MUNICIPAL INTERGOVERNMENTAL RELATIONS

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

Faced with a back-end loaded Building Canada infrastructure program that will see significant funding available to municipalities only in the program’s twilight years, more and more local governments are looking at how to best position themselves in what promises to be a highly competitive environment.

For some—mostly larger and mid-sized municipalities—this means turning to their intergovernmental affairs (IGA) departments for answers. But ironically, it may be the smaller municipalities–for which the IGA department is the mayor and council–that may be best positioned.

Let’s look at why.

Canada’s Constitution makes intergovernmental relations in the municipal context more complex than those at the interprovincial or federal-provincial level.

While the federal and provincial/territorial orders of government enjoy – legally, if not politically — relative equality and operate within well-established institutional arrangements that facilitate and even require formal relations, municipalities’ subsidiary status often forces them to create political and administrative space for their agendas to be considered.

In this context, classic models of intergovernmental relations that rely on formal channels and methods of communications are not well adapted to effective (as measured by the ability to influence positive outcomes) municipal intergovernmental relations. This is particularly true when it comes to municipal relations with the federal government.

Because of the political and administrative firewalls created by our Constitution, municipal relations with Ottawa tend to be more idiosyncratic and follow less formal patterns and approaches to institutional communications than do relations between the federal government and provincial/territorial governments.

The absence of formal institutional linkages between cities and the federal government mean that favourable outcomes, on the whole, tend to be driven by political, more than policy considerations.  Effective municipal intergovernmental relations therefore tend to have more in common with traditional advocacy than traditional intergovernmental relations.

Being successful in this environment require strategic and tactical flexibility—the ability to turn on a dime to seize opportunities—as well as the capacity to build networks, partnerships and alliances and to identify opportunities and seize them. And this is true whether you’re a municipality looking at supporting the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) push for better housing policies, or one hoping to get to the front of the funding queue for a major infrastructure project. This is why– even though they may not have the staff horsepower of larger cities–smaller municipalities may have an advantage, provided they are poised to act on it.

This has practical implications for the structure and operations of every municipal intergovernmental function, be it formal or not. It means shedding many of the trappings of formal intergovernmental relations and embracing a more dynamic approach built on sound, timely intelligence and analysis, and the capacity to mobilize networks quickly and efficiently.

For larger municipalities with formal IGA functions it will mean assessing how well roles, responsibilities and decision-making within their IGA team align with a core advocacy function built to be nimble and responsive. It will mean assessing how well equipped they are to tell their core story in a compelling and timely way to all of their key networks—government, media, potential allies—and to using this narrative to create room for favourable political action.

In the campaign for scarce federal infrastructure dollars, the ability to engage a network, mobilize a community, and tell a compelling story in a timely fashion will matter more than the number of official meetings one has been able to secure.

EXTREME WEATHER ADAPTATION: PAYING THE PIPER

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Remember the oil filter commercial from the 1980s — the one where the mechanic suggested paying a bit more up front for a better oil filter to avoid expensive repairs later?

That was good advice — policy wonks would call it following the precautionary principle.  It applies as much to regular maintenance on cars as to climate change mitigation—measures to reduce greenhouse gases–and adaptation—policies designed to harden and adapt infrastructure to extreme weather events.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the latter, it seems the federal government decided some time ago its policy engine didn’t need an oil filter.

But if any doubt still lingered in Canada about the critical importance of hardening our infrastructure against extreme weather, it should be put to rest by the disaster that struck southern Alberta this week.

In addition to its immediate and terrifying impact on people and property, the effects of extreme weather linger much longer as their economic shock waves are felt long after the crisis has passed.

According to a report from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce the damage from the Alberta floods could strip a full percentage point from Canada’s economic growth this year.

Then there’s the cost of cleaning up the mess–which will include not only residential reconstruction but also major repairs to highway and other public infrastructure—that’s expected to top $6 billion.

That means any hopes the Alberta government had of balancing its budget in the short term are shot. And at a minimum, the post-flood clean up raises questions about the federal government’s own plans for near-term fiscal balance as Ottawa will no doubt be called in to help in the reconstruction of key economic infrastructure.

With the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other credible national and international organizations forecasting that extreme weather occurrences will increase in number and scope, one would think that mitigating their impact would be a priority for all governments.

Unfortunately, as the tortuous path followed by climate change negotiations will attest, that’s not been the case.

The economic dislocation that some fear would follow the adoption of stringent carbon reduction measures may help explain the lack of meaningful progress in the area of climate change mitigation. But there is no economic cover for inaction on adaptation, especially when the government of Canada spends billions each year on unrelated infrastructure projects.

The best explanation for the absence of a federal infrastructure adaptation strategy probably comes from a report examining the federal-municipal relationship, released three weeks ago by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

The FCM report describes a relationship built around short-term considerations more likely to produce photo-ops than lasting structural fixes.

The report doesn’t assess blame on the current government, but says the mess stems form an outdated and broken federal system that blurs accountabilities–often leaving the provinces out of the loop—and encourages boutique federal programs that fail to get at the root of the problem.

Many in the municipal sector hoped that Transport minister Denis Lebel’s six-month consultations last year on a long-term infrastructure plan might provide the platform for such a strategy.

FCM and a number of other organizations including the Insurance Bureau of Canada used the consultations to call for a long-term infrastructure plan that would facilitate extreme weather adaptation in cities.

But when the federal government announced its $ 53 billion 10-year infrastructure program in the last Budget, it was silent on the question of adaptation.

The devastation that flood waters visited on communities in southern Alberta was a stark reminder of how vulnerable our cities have become to extreme weather events.  Seeing the economic capital of Alberta battered and paralyzed by the murky waters of the Saskatchewan River was sobering.

The federal government is now measuring options available to it as it considers its response to this latest weather-related disaster.

The question now is whether the scenes of devastation that played out in southern Alberta will be enough to create the political room for a fundamental re-think of the federal role in extreme weather adaptation.

In keeping with the Harper government’s focus on the bottom line, it may be time for advocates to start framing climate change adaptation as preventive maintenance for Canada’s economic engine.  With extreme weather events on the rise, we can pay now, or we can pay the piper later.

MARTIN’S NEW DEAL FOR CITIES HOLDS LESSONS FOR HARPER GOVERNMENT

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

This article first appeared in iPolitics under the title, “Infrastructure Minister has opportunity to strengthen federal-municipal relation.”

This Friday, as mayors and councilors from across Canada gather in Saskatoon for the opening of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) annual conference, some in attendance may note that it marks the 10th anniversary of Paul Martin’s New Deal for cities speech to the same conference, held that year in Hamilton. But it’s not likely.

While not quite up there with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or other oratory landmarks of the 20th century, Martin’s 2002 cities speech did more than get him fired from the Chrétien cabinet. It inspired hope among municipal politicians and urban advocates that Canada’s cities would finally be on the national agenda. Many even suggested that it ushered in a new era of federal-municipal partnership.

Yet, like much of Martin’s ambitious agenda, the New Deal for cities failed to live up to expectations.

Today, with the Harper government working on a new long-term infrastructure program to replace those set to expire—along with other federal transfers—in March 2014, it’s appropriate to ask what lessons the failure of Martin’s vision has for the current government.

To be fair to Paul Martin’s legacy, it is important to note that the New Deal delivered the gas tax transfer, which today pumps two billion dollars a year into city coffers for much-needed infrastructure repairs. But it took a Conservative government to make it permanent.

When it was introduced in 2005, it was as a five-year program, which did little to address the need for funding certainty required for long-term capital investments and planning. Its relatively short-term  nature reflected a high-degree of skittishness on the part of federal finance (and other) officials at the prospect of longer term transfers.

In hindsight, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that there was more sizzle than steak to the New Deal. Any significant federal overture to municipalities along the lines hinted at in his speech was likely to raise the hackles of provincial governments and be largely unworkable, both politically and  constitutionally.

His speech, 10 years later, is rife with generalities. Martin was cautious, refusing to get into specific commitments, unwilling to go all in and truly  embrace—to use one of his favourite words—a transformative relationship with municipal governments and risk being called offside—not by his boss but by provincial premiers.

Yet in its day, the speech resonated because it was the first time in many years that a senior federal politician—one who aspired to the top job, no less—reached out to city governments with so much passion and apparent understanding of the issues they faced.

But if he succeeded in seducing his audience with his vision of a new relationship, Paul Martin failed to consummate it. In part, this was because his tenure was cut short by the election of the Harper government in January 2006. More importantly, it was because there was no meaningful policy framework to support it.

And this brings us back to Friday in Saskatoon. This year, it’s federal infrastructure minister Denis Lebel who will deliver the keynote address to the municipal delegates. And while it’s a safe bet it won’t get him fired, his speech will be as important for Canada’s cities as Paul Martin’s.

Lebel is about one third of the way through a process he announced last November to put in place a long-term plan for infrastructure spending in this country. And while a long-term infrastructure deal lacks the excitement of a New Deal, it will likely set the terms and conditions for the federal-municipal
relationship for the next decade and beyond.

With Canada’s cities struggling under the weight of a $120-billion infrastructure deficit, and the expiry of a number of critical federal transfers to cities, including the flagship Building Canada Fund set for March 2014, municipal delegates will hanging on his every word looking for reassurances.

The minister should avoid Paul Martin’s mistakes and the urge to speak in generalities about “the vision thing”.  He should use his remarks to spell out in
detail how the rest of his process will unfold and, most importantly, its policy objective, which should be very simple: eliminating the infrastructure deficit for good–because that has to be the bottom line.

Anything short of a clear commitment to fixing the problem once and for all, will perpetuate the creation of programs that fail to get at the root causes of accelerating infrastructure decay in this country.

The major constant in a 10-year backdrop of shifting federal attitudes toward municipalities has been that policies in this area have largely been dictated by the political circumstances of the day and not on the basis of clear policy considerations and objectives.

The minister now has an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and break that cycle. As political oratory it won’t pack the same wallop as Paul Martin’s speech, but the outcome could be as transformative as the promise of the New Deal was bold.

FEDERAL COMMITMENT JUST THE FIX FOR CRUMBLING INFRASTRUCTURE

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

The announcement last week by federal infrastructure minister Denis Lebel that the federal government was kick-starting a process to develop a new long term strategy for public infrastructure investments was quickly dismissed by critics as smoke and mirrors.

With the President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities at his side, the minister announced a three-step, year-long plan designed to take stock of the situation and align federal, provincial and municipal infrastructure efforts into a common strategy by 2014 when the current suite of federal programs expires.

But with Canada’s infrastructure deficit topping the $ 100 billion mark  and compounding daily, many had hoped that the federal government would announce something more definitive than studies and intergovernmental consultations.

It would be tempting to dismiss this as just  an example of Ottawa fiddling while our cities crumble. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a
government announced studies and consultations as a way to try and make an issue go away.

This time however, that would be wrong. In fact, last week’s announcement — if followed through – could just be the fix for Canada’s crumbling infrastructure and broken funding system.

Let’s look at the reasons why.

First, no amount of federal foot-dragging or magical thinking is going to make this particular issue go away.

By the time the current programs run their course in a couple of years, Ottawa will have been in the infrastructure funding business for two decades and will have invested over $ 30 billion while leveraging billions more from provincial and municipal governments.

Yet, not only do the problems that spurred the creation of the first infrastructure program in 1993 remain, but they’ve gotten worse with, as the collapse of a Laval overpass a few years ago reminds us, potentially deadly consequences.

In the early1980s, at the start of the cities’ campaign to get federal help for their crumbling infrastructure, the gap stood at about $ 12 billion, by 2007 studies showed the so-called infrastructure deficit had broken through the $100 billion mark. And that’s just for municipal infrastructure.

Add to that the bill for federal and provincial roads, bridges and other assorted structures and it’s easy to understand why no one level of government has claimed ownership of the problem or the solution.

Second, an overhaul of the existing programs is urgently needed.  The current system of short term, ad-hoc programs favours spending on new infrastructure more than repair, and because the focus is often on getting shovels in the ground quickly, it also tends to favour spending on second and even third tier priorities.

The minister’s commitment to taking stock of what worked and what didn’t with the old programs should lead to a basic re-think of how Ottawa delivers infrastructure funding.

Third, mayors and councillors have rightly been pushing for this kind of long term thinking from Ottawa for the last ten years and, without any new funding programs in the pipeline to act as sweeteners it’s not likely they will let the government off the hook without something tangible to bring home.

Fourth, it is in the provinces’ interest to accept the minister’s invitation and come to the table and have a say on how federal infrastructure largesse will be doled out, first to try and secure the largest possible share of federal dollars for provincial infrastructure, and second, in order to finally have a say in what the programs will look like.

Finally, the growing pressure on the Harper government to deal with a number of major infrastructure challenges – the replacement of the Champlain Bridge comes to mind– gives the minister and the government a powerful incentive to try and spread the fiscal and political burden for Canada’s infrastructure building and repair more evenly across all jurisdictions. This should be a major incentive for real progress.

But what of FCM President Berry Vrbanovic’s comment that last week’s announcement amounted to “a promise to put aside band aid solutions and find the cure for the infrastructure deficit once and for all”?  Wishful thinking on his part?

I’m not sure that the infrastructure minister  would  echo those words exactly–we all remember Paul Martin’s promise to fix health care “for a generation”.  But his commitment to engage all levels of government in a collective re-think of how we finance our roads, bridges and water works, is pragmatic, gutsy and long-overdue.  And it may just work.

FEDERAL LEADERSHIP, PROVINCIAL SOLUTIONS NEEDED FOR URBAN FIX

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi used a tour of eastern Canada originally designed to sell his city as a business destination last week to push his second favourite subject: all that ails Canada’s cities.

The mayor used multiple speaking engagements and media interviews to hammer away at the urgency of fixing the growing imbalance between cities’ responsibilities and their capacity to pay.

He said Canada’s cities needed new sources of stable and predictable funding because their principal fiscal tool—the property tax—is outdated and not up to the task.  And he warned of dire consequences for cities and for the country if that fiscal imbalance is not addressed quickly.

This is not a new hobby horse for Nenshi. In fact this is hardly news at all. He’s been talking about mending Canada’s fraying urban fabric since his election last fall.  And Canada’s other big city mayors have been making exactly the same arguments for years, also calling for stable and predictable funding from Ottawa.

They even had some success. Remember the New Deal for Cities?  Paul Martin’s lofty 2002 pledge of a new relationship with Canada’s cities got him fired from his job as minister of Finance.

More to the point, a few years later, that pledge netted cities the gas tax transfer, which now pumps $ 2 billion per year in city coffers across the country for infrastructure improvements.

Not surprisingly, the gas tax transfer has been immensely popular with mayors and councillors in communities of all sizes.  So popular in fact, that the Harper government last year announced it would become a permanent fixture of fiscal federalism—a kind of equalization program for roads and bridges.

Talk about stable. And you can’t get much more predictable than that. So where’s the problem?

Well, it’s not the one that most of the media outlets who interviewed the Calgary mayor last week led with. 

It’sreally not about cities needing more money to fix their crumbling infrastructure; or about modernizing a municipal fiscal regime better suited to a 19th century agrarian society than one in the throes of global competition; or about needing more federal dollars for affordable housing and transit.

Those are the symptoms.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, the real problem is that it’s déjà vu all over again.

For anyone who followed the New Deal debate six or seven years ago, reading or watching an interview with mayor Nenshi today is like stepping into a time capsule.  His talking points are virtually the same as those used by former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray and former Toronto mayor David Miller, and countless other municipal politicians before and after.

Back then they resonated and gained traction not only in the media, but with civil society and business groups and even within the federal government–now, not so much.

Six years after the gas tax transfer, and four years after the largest infrastructure program in the history of this country municipal pleas for more federal spending are starting to sound hollow.

There’s a sense in many quarters that when it comes to cities the feds already gave at the office and it’s time to move on.

Yet, mayor Nenshi is right–just as his former colleagues were right a decade ago.  Canada’s cities are struggling when they should be achieving. And with 80 percent of Canadians living in urban areas, if our cities struggle our country struggles.

But the real solutions to the problems faced by Canada’s cities are found in provincial capitals not on Parliament Hill.  Only provinces can fix broken and “outdated” municipal finance systems. Only provinces can change the planning regimes that undermine sustainability.

The fundamental problem has never been about money–at least not federal money.  It has always been about provincial politics and power and recognition, and that’s been a tough nut to crack.

Municipal politicians regularly get admonished by provincial governments that their local administrations are creatures of the province. Which is like saying “I put you here, I can take you out”.

But like it or not, they’re right. That’s the constitutional hand our founding fathers dealt us.

And the mayors are also right in pointing out that the government of Canada has a vested interest–if not a constitutional responsibility–in seeing our cities prosper.

So, how do they break the logjam and work toward lasting fixes?

First, they have to stop focusing only on federal spending (particularly in the current fiscal context). Federal infrastructure spending runs the risk of becoming less of a New Deal and more of a kind of permanent Marshal Plan for cities, and it’s not working. As mayor Nenshi pointed out, billions in federal investments have not fixed the problem.

Second, they need to change their song sheet and strategy. What cities need most from Ottawa now is leadership.

Canada’s mayors need to come together and push for a national vision of urban Canada. And while Ottawa can’t impose its blueprint in an area of provincial jurisdiction, it can lead a collaborative intergovernmental process to define what our cities should look like in 25 years.

Third, they need to seize the opportunity that the 2014 expiry of key transfer programs presents and push for the inclusion of cities on the fed/prov agenda.

Ultimately however, all the mayors can do is create political room for their vision. Only Ottawa can lead the way.