06/01/2012 01:44 EDT | Updated 08/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Ottawa to extend funding to cities past 2014; municipalities relieved

SASKATOON - The president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities says mayors across the country are relieved that the federal government has committed to extending a major infrastructure fund.

Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel announced at the federation's annual convention on Friday that the seven-year, $33-billion fund begun in 2007 will continue past 2014.

Details are to be announced in time for that year's construction season, Lebel said.

“Quite frankly there was some anxiety amongst elected leaders across this country about how this program was coming along,” federation president Berry Vrbanovic said. “I would say I’m feeling relieved.”

Lebel said he will chair a series of roundtable discussions across the country over the summer to gather views from municipalities, corporations and the public on Canada's infrastructure needs.

The data is to form the basis of the next phase of the national infrastructure strategy, he said.

Nine meetings are to be held: one in each of the western provinces, Ontario and Quebec; one in the North and two in Atlantic Canada.

Lebel would not say how much money will be on the table because that depends on the overall performance of the economy.

“I can’t promise you billions if we don’t have them,” he said. “We have to wait to see what the Canadian economy will be like at that time.”

On Thursday, the big-city mayors warned that they don’t have the cash to pay for improvements to roads, public transit, aging water systems and public housing.

“Right now, we are getting eight cents on the tax dollar paid by Canadians. And eight cents is simply not enough,” said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, in a speech to the federation Friday, said cash-strapped municipalities are now responsible for 60 per cent of public infrastructure and face a “staggering” $123-billion infrastructure deficit.

Roundtable talks wouldn’t remedy crumbling bridges, traffic gridlock and aging waste-water treatment facilities, Mulcair said.

“Cities and communities need more than just meetings and piecemeal investments that fail to address the core infrastructure challenges municipalities face.”

Also speaking on Friday, Liberal Leader Bob Rae criticized the Harper government for continually “downloading” responsibilities to municipalities, but withholding additional funding. Stable, predictable long-term funding is needed, he said.

“The begging bowl should no longer be the biggest piece of furniture in the mayor's office,” Rae said.

The assembled mayors applauded Mulcair’s pledge to transfer an additional one cent of gas tax revenues to municipalities should the NDP form government.

But her got a rocky reception from some western mayors on another issue.

While taking questions from the crowd, Mulcair was told by the mayor of Spruce Grove, Alta., to “stop taking shots at the Alberta oil industry” because it isn’t winning him any "brownie points" in Western Canada.

Mulcair has said that the booming oilsands near Fort McMurray are hurting other sectors such as manufacturing because energy companies don't have to pay to clean up the land, air and water that they pollute. Their high profits inflate the dollar which hurts exporters in the rest of the country, he says.

But on Thursday, after visiting the sprawling development in northern Alberta, he emphasized that his fight is not with western premiers or oilsands operators.

"The federal government is failing to enforce existing legislation and right now that's starting to cause serious problems in the ecosystems in question," he said.