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Commentary by Paul Moist

Mayors from Canadas big cities gather in Toronto today to develop a winning strategy to secure resources to meet the pressing needs of our towns and cities and unlock the economic and social potential of our urban hubs.

With the first ministers meeting next week and Paul Martins first Throne Speech to follow on February 2, the need for such a strategy has never been greater.

For years, it has been clear that cities need more revenue and secure access to ongoing and growing sources of revenues, to meet the demands of local residents and businesses. Income from property tax, user fees and parking fines will never be enough.

Paul Martin has promised hell tackle this problem. He understands the central role that municipal services play in meeting social needs, growing our economy and protecting our environment. He knows that if cities and towns are left to rely on traditional sources of income, urban infrastructure will continue to decay, and seniors and families with young children will continue to pay more than their fair share.

Yet the mayors have good reason to be skeptical about Martins commitment to their cause. His budget cuts as finance minister helped create the straight jacket in which they find themselves. And now, having promised them a share of the federal gas tax for roads and transit, hes reneging on that offer. A GST rebate, though welcome and overdue, is no substitute for a secure share of a growing revenue source.

Similarly, theres little hope the premiers, when they sit down with Martin this month, will press the cities case. With good reason, the premiers will demand more money from the federal coffers for public health care. But their demands for fiscal fairness sound like bluster when they deny municipal governments their due.

The premiers seem to view this as a zero sum game. Every penny that goes to our towns and cities is a penny from their pocket. And any power vested in cities is an attack on their power.

Frankly, most Canadians are sick of the politics and the pettiness. Weve had enough of the blame game and the intergovernmental posturing. We are looking for real solutions to pressing issues solutions that address the reality of the 21st century rather than the constitutional constraints of the 19th century.

We want the level of government that is best suited to delivering a public service to have the resources to fund that service and to be held accountable for assuring quality, safety and value for money.

This will require a wholesale rethinking of who taxes and who spends, but meanwhile we need a significant transfer of funds from the federal government to our cities and towns. This includes a generous share of the gas tax, the GST exemption and direct federal funding for public infrastructure, affordable housing and urban transit.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates the current infrastructure deficit at $60 billion. To tackle this an annual investment of $6 billion is needed, shared equally by all levels of government. As well, a federal investment of $2 billion over three years is needed to build new housing and refurbish existing units.

In a move to preempt spending on these and other public priorities, Finance Minister Ralph Goodale is promoting a new assault on government debt. But as anyone whos ever taken out a mortgage knows, a debt incurred to purchase an asset can be a very good investment.

The fact is a major federal investment in the health, well-being and competitiveness of our cities is long overdue. The big city mayors have every reason to hold Paul Martins feet to the fire, demanding action on the promised new deal for cities. They are also right to criticize provincial politicians who fail to practice what they preach.

But in the end, the mayors will provide the biggest boost to cities by their actions, not their words. By ushering in a new era of cooperation among Canadas big cities, they can jumpstart innovative approaches to the problems we are facing today.

For example, they could look at pooling their capital requirements and collectively issuing municipal bonds. Among them, they have excellent credit ratings and substantial assets. By acting together, they could offer bonds at attractive rates of interest, tapping into public pension funds to secure a portion of the investment capital they so desperately need.

They can also help fast-track solutions to other urban issues housing, transit, waste, public safety by sharing examples of the many innovative public services that are being pioneered in different communities by municipal employees dedicated to meeting their communitys needs.

As mayors from across the country join in Toronto, its important they know they have the support of their communities and that of Canadians from coast to coast in moving ahead on a reform agenda to strengthen our cities and the public services that underlie our prosperity and quality of life.