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City welcomes talk of new deal

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 21/02) - Increasing talk in federal circles about a so-called "new deal for cities" is being met with a skeptical reception in Yellowknife.

Former Finance Minister Paul Martin started the debate when he suggested that cities could be provided with alternative means of raising money -- a "new deal" for cities, as he called it. Those comments came at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities meeting in Hamilton this June.

Last week Transport Minister David Collenette said the government could create a separate gas tax for cities, or devote part of GST revenue to municipalities.

Both ministers' ideas were subsequently squashed by Deputy Minister John Manley, who said the government has no intention of drafting such a new deal. Yet the funding question is still pertinent to Yellowknife, the biggest city in the Northwest Territories.

Some councillors said any new source of revenue would be welcome, particularly in upgrading public transit.

But Mayor Gord Van Tighem said Yellowknife is in a different situation from southern cities, in part because the Northwest Territories doesn't have as many powers as a province -- and therefore has less portfolios it can download to a lower level of government.

"In the larger cities, they're getting more involved in the larger transportation issues. They've got significant involvement in inner-city problems of homelessness and poverty, which relates to social welfare-types of things," he said.

But Yellowknife is a different story. Here, the city has worked to co-ordinate partnerships to deliver some services, such as the Yellowknife Homelessness Coalition. The city has helped in its founding.

"We've been facilitators," said Van Tighem. "There hasn't been a financial download, really."

Stings attached

Others weren't convinced, however.

"Part of the focus (of "new deal" talk) is to deal with issues that relate to things like transportation, environment and housing," said Coun. Ben McDonald. "And although I think the focus of the federal government is probably more on the bigger cities, I think that the idea that they want to set up a direct relationship with municipalities ... is a bonus."

Coun. Robert Hawkins, who heard Martin speak in Hamilton, said "I think it's an awesome idea if our federal government is willing to send more money down."

But Hawkins warned government money doesn't usually come without strings attached.

"The likelihood of them just giving more money to existing programs without asking for more ... it just opens the door," he said.

McDonald doesn't like the idea of cities raising their own sales taxes. Calling them "regressive," he said sales taxes unfairly target the poor.

But he did say that current government conditions mean cities are going to need more cash, and more ways of raising it.

"The sorts of things that are being downloaded to municipalities to administer can't be funded by the narrow funding base that we've got," he said.

Van Tighem echoed that.

"As you devolve authority, you should be devolving some money," he said.