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Budget 2017: a game-changer for communities (12/04/2017)

The following op-ed was published in The Hill Times infrastructure edition on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. 

By Clark Somerville, President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities

For two years, municipal leaders have laid out a bold vision for Canada's future. We've shown how communities-large and small, urban and rural-are this country's economic engines. And we've shown that one of the best ways to build a prosperous and sustainable Canada is to empower local governments.

Last month's federal budget does that in significant ways. By putting new infrastructure tools in local hands, it doesn't just equip us to improve residents' quality of life. It also banks on local governments to tackle national challenges, including economic growth.

This budget also leaves big questions unanswered, and the municipal sector is pressing for decisive action. More on this below. But to make sense of this, it is important to recognize how game-changing this budget has been for local governments.

First, it effectively launches the next era of public transit across Canada.

We've known for months that the federal government was preparing to invest more than $20 billion in transit expansions. This budget tells us how that will happen. By offering predictable funding allocations to cities across Canada, this plan recognizes that they are fully capable of launching major expansions that meet local needs.

For Canadians, this will mean shorter commutes, less gridlock, lower emissions, and new growth. And by putting cities in the driver's seat, this plan is a new template for governments working together to achieve both local and national goals.

Second, this budget answers our call to tackle Canada's housing crisis.

Housing is becoming less affordable at every income level, and a million and a half families simply can't find a decent rental they can afford. Municipal leaders have been very clear: we can't build tomorrow's Canada on top of this housing crisis. And the Federation of Canadian Municipalities supported that with a comprehensive plan to fix it.

Budget 2017 responds with $11.2 billion to protect and build affordable housing, and to address homelessness. It also commits to preserve some $4 billion in baseline funding from expiring social housing operating agreements. This is a significant federal re-engagement on an issue that local governments identified as a burning priority.

Third, this budget supports growth for rural, northern and remote communities.

In many regions, rural communities are dominant economic players in sectors like agriculture, manufacturing, resources, tourism and transportation. Yet many struggle to provide the infrastructure that supports local economies and living standards. Heading into this budget, we were clear: nation-building must include communities of all sizes.

This budget confirms a $2 billion fund dedicated to the priorities of smaller communities. This will mean job-creating investment in rural transportation needs, reliable broadband access and other core infrastructure. A thriving Canada needs a thriving rural Canada, and this budget's tools will help get us there.

So yes, we're calling this budget a game-changer. But when it comes to building tomorrow's Canada, we also recognize that we're only minutes in from the opening face-off. To generate the outcomes Canadian deserve, we'll need to see some more big moves soon.

On public transit, Ottawa will cover 40 percent the capital costs of expansions. But without strong federal leadership to engage provinces as full financial partners, local fiscal limits could halt progress in its tracks. We're also still seeking confirmation that municipalities will be fully empowered to prioritize eligible projects based on local needs.

On housing, the federal re-engagement is there. But we still need to see clear and robust allocations to new affordable and social housing, and for repairs to keep existing social housing decent and affordable. All orders of government will also need to join forces through a national housing strategy to foster a fuller spectrum of housing choices for Canadians.

This budget's green infrastructure commitment also needs to be defined. This government clearly can't meet its climate goals without municipalities. Together, they influence half of Canada's climate-changing emissions, and many are leading the way on emission-cutting innovation. But we're still seeking details on how green funds can help scale that up.

Still, Canadians can look to the future with fresh optimism. Municipal leaders are engaged in unprecedented dialogue, with the federal government and with opposition parties and stakeholders across the country. And with the right tools in place, we've never been more ready-to build more livable cities and communities, and a more competitive and sustainable Canada.

Clark Somerville is President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and a local/regional councillor for the Town of Halton Hills and Halton Region. FCM is the national voice of local government, with nearly 2,000 members representing 91 per cent of Canada's population. 

Page Updated: 12/04/2017