Canada’s big city mayors are gearing up for the 2019 federal election by making a wish list topped with funding for affordable housing, climate change and new revenue tools.
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said Thursday “strategic discussions” are underway at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference in Halifax that will shape the top priorities for mayors ahead of the next election.
Despite major commitments from Ottawa on a number of key issues, he said municipalities are still waiting for results – particularly on affordable housing.
“On paper we’ve made huge progress with the national housing strategy but none of us have actually seen any dollars flow yet from that strategy into our communities,” Iveson said, noting that decades of underfunding has created an acute backlog of social housing.
Although the federal government has “stemmed the bleeding” in recent years by reversing cuts, Iveson called the lack of new funding for affordable housing in the last federal budget a “lost opportunity.”
“The housing crisis, particularly in our largest cities, continues to be a sore spot,” he said. “We haven’t been adding to the social housing inventory in this country for really 20 years in any substantial way so that backlog is real.”
Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer are scheduled to speak to the Halifax conference Friday. Trudeau and the minister of infrastructure and communities, Amarjeet Sohi, will also meet with municipal leaders attending the conference.
The mayors of Canada’s largest municipalities are also looking to tap into new revenue sources beyond property taxes, such as in Quebec, where Premier Philippe Couillard has promised municipalities a portion of the province’s sales tax if the Liberals are re-elected this fall.
Iveson, chairman of the big city mayors’ caucus, said there isn’t one solution that would work across the country – Alberta, for example, doesn’t have a provincial sales tax but could consider a broader revenue-sharing system.
He said the idea is to give municipalities a revenue stream that is tied to economic growth as an incentive to encourage local investment.
“The solutions may look different across the country from province to province and ultimately from the federal government,” Iveson said. “But it should give municipalities predictability and some certainty and be immune from redirection or political interference.”
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said the city has seen strong economic growth but property taxes have remained steady.
“The skyline has changed, the innovation economy has taken off,” he said. “We’ve become one of the top tech hubs in Canada but that’s not reflected in property tax.”
Savage said the city is exploring a “fair way” to ensure the municipality receives a share of the economic growth in order to invest in municipal services and infrastructure.
Meanwhile, climate change is also increasingly a key issue for local governments, and Iveson said Ottawa has yet to assist cities with mitigation costs.
“Achieving our nation’s goals in the pan-Canadian framework on climate change can only happen with implementation in our cities that’s successful,” he said. “The green dollars have to flow to us and we need to be able to implement mitigation programs that will actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The mayors also expressed concern with the lack of funding tied to cannabis legalization.
“None of us are looking to make money on this,” Iveson said. “We simply want to have our costs covered and that hasn’t happened.”