Election 2015: Mayors happy to see municipal issues on the minds of party leaders

Issues like infrastructure have risen to the top of the agenda in this election campaign.

Where the rubber hits the road in terms of large-scale involvement of the federal government at the municipal level is infrastructure funding.

While other federal services are provided, money for road, bridge, water and water treatment facilities and a host of other infrastructure projects is crucial for Canada’s cities and towns.

“Municipalities are responsible for 66 per cent of the country’s infrastructure but we only get eight per cent of the tax revenue,” said West Kelowna Mayor Doug Findlater.

As a result, the issue of infrastructure spending by Ottawa, both to help municipalities and create good-paying jobs, has risen to the top when it comes to promises by the main parties.

At the urging of Canada’s mayors and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, national party leaders are talking about infrastructure and the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP all have plans they say will help.

The most ambitious is likely the Liberal’s plan given that it will require three years of deficit spending to realize.

The Liberals say they will spend $60 billion in three areas —social, green and transportation—over 10 years to improve the Canada’s municipal infrastructure.

The Conservatives plan to top up the plan they announced in the last federal budget with a new transit funding plan that will increase to $1 billion per year by 2020.

The NDP says it will increase the federal Gas Tax transfer to municipalities as one way to get more money in the hands of civic leader for infrastructure funding, as well as spend more on transit and affordable housing programs.

“This is the first time I have heard all the party leaders talking about municipal issues in a federal election,” said Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran, adding it’s a welcome sign.

He said while his city has done “fairly well” in the last few years in terms of federal funding for projects, with contributions towards the new John Hindle Drive and and an investment in the new Okanagan Innovation Centre under construction in downtown Kelowna, across the country municipalities have not done  as well and that’s a concern.

Both he and Findlater said there is an urgent need for sufficient and predictable funding for municipal infrastructure projects from the federal government.

But both are happy to hear federal leaders say that want to see more money directed to Canada’s cities and towns.

“To a large extent, things that we have to deal with at the local government level, we need funding from both senior governments, federal and provincial,” said Lake Country Mayor James Baker.

In many cases, projects are funded on the basis of the municipality, the province and the federal government each contributing a third of the cost.

But the concept of partnerships goes much further than that.

In West Kelowna’s case, the recent improvement’s to Gellatly Road involved contributions from local groups, as well as developer contributions in the form of development cost charge revenue, as well as provincial and federal money.

Findlater noted that its was a small, $20,000 contribution from a local society that actually spurred on the multi-million job in the first place.

But while federal funding has flowed into this area, in large part because it has had two MPs representing the governing party for many years, there are still concerns.

Basran said the federal New Build Canada program is one of them.

Set up by the Conservative government to help fund municipal infrastructure programs, Basran said the program sounds great but provides no clear direction about how to apply for funding and when money is approved, in many cases it is “back-funded,” meaning the money comes through in the last years of the project, not at the beginning.

In the case of multi-year municipal infrastructure projects that can be problematic, he said.

Still, as Kelowna has experienced in the past, the better prepared a municipality is with its projects, the better the chance of them being partially funded by Ottawa.

All three mayors said they feel they have, and have had, good working relationships with all local MPs and do not expect that to change, no matter who is elected here on Oct. 19.