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cities needed new sources of stable and predictable funding because their principal fiscal tool—the property tax—is outdated and not up to the task.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.