Are Canada’s mayors crying poor or crying wolf?

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

Canada's big city mayors emerged from their meeting in Ottawa, on Wednesday, with a common theme — 'Feds, we need more money.'

"The [Big City Mayor's Caucus] is calling for Canada to take practical steps to build stronger cities and a stronger economy.

First, federal and provincial governments must guarantee a lion's share of the New Building Canada Fund for municipal projects, including public transit. Second, the federal government must take action to avert a housing disaster by developing a long-term housing plan for next year's budget that will make life more affordable for Canadians and reverse the withdrawal of existing federal social housing investments worth $1.7 billion per year.

The mayors also objected to proposed new federal funding rules that would make it more difficult to meet local needs in areas such as roads, and sports and recreation."

The mayors also want Canada Post to stop its plan to eliminate door-to-delivery "until municipal concerns have been fully addressed through meaningful consultation."

The FCM, it should be noted, doesn't offer any real suggestions, on how to pay for all of this.

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The repeated calls for more funding has elicited a strong rebuke by a right-leaning organization known as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

In a report titled 'Municipalities are richer than they think' the pro-business group says that municipal governments don't have a revenue problem, they have a spending problem.

"Currently transfers from senior levels of government are at an all-time high and inflation-adjusted revenues for Canadian municipalities doubled in the 31 years leading up to 2012," the CFIB notes.

"Real operating spending (accounting for inflation) by Canadian municipalities grew by 55 per cent from 2000 to 2011, while the population grew by only 12 per cent.

"CFIB recognizes that some are doing better than others, but calls on all Canadian municipalities to make it a priority to bring spending in line with inflation and population growth."

Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney even weighed-in on the debate, on Twitter, on Wednesday morning.

[ Related: Big City Mayors conference held captive by shadow of Rob Ford ]

The FCM have defended themselves essentially saying that government transfers are at the whim of federal and provincial politicians and often require municipalities to match funds.

Nevertheless, mayors — from big and small cities — don't help their cause when they increase spending by 55 per cent in just over a decade.

A big chunk of that increase, according to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, is due to labour costs.

"Cities need more checks and balances – starting with having to adhere to provincial government union contract mandates such as net zero," the CTF's Jordan Bateman told Yahoo Canada News late last year, using British Columbia as an example.

"While the province has saved billions in future labour costs by sticking to net zero and cooperative gains mandates, cities have frittered away money from their many tax increases on union contracts."

Coincidentally, the CTF unveiled their Teddy awards on Wednesday which highlighted the millions of dollars in local government waste. This year's municipal award nominees included Brampton Mayor Susan Fennell for reportedly racking up $186,000 in expenses over three years. Her expense claims include $1,326 for Mandarin lessons.

[ Related: Job training ads, Pan Am Games among CTF's top taxpayer-funded losers ]

Certainly, spendthrift politicians aside, there are significant needs at the local level: Roads, bridges, sewage systems and city infrastructure are, in some cases, in dire need of upgrades.

But, if councils want to win the battle of public opinion, they should probably work on reigning-in their spending first.

They should also realize that there's only one taxpayer and he/she is kind of tapped-out.

(Photo courtesy of the Canadian Press)

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