The House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities (TRAN) met today as a part of its study into the impact of the federal government’s deadline of March 31, 2011 for Infrastructure Stimulus Fund (ISF) projects and December 31, 2010 for the completion of projects funded through the Recreational Infrastructure Canada Program (RinC) and the Water and Wastewater Pipeline Renewal Program (PRECO).
Among the witnesses were representatives from the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
UBCM’s membership feels that there needs to be some flexibility on the part of the federal government with regards to the March 31, 2011 deadline on a case-by-case basis, arguing that delays to shovel ready projects were caused by factors beyond the control of many B.C. municipalities. For instance, the May 2009 provincial election effectively delayed the approval process by the Province for projects that had been nominated by municipalities for stimulus funding. Environmental and archaeological assessments were also blamed for slow project delivery.
UBCM is suggesting that some of the solutions to delayed projects could be achieved administratively, such as by allocating the full federal contribution of ISF funded projects prior to March 31, and backending provincial payments (which are not time sensitive) to cover the period beyond the deadline.
FCM’s representatives started by first thanking the federal government for its “generous” investments in infrastructure. They said that the vast majority of projects funded through ISF are on time. But for those that aren’t, flexibility should be demonstrated by the federal government and can be achieved without extending the deadline.
There was also some talk on the part of FCM reps about what will happen after the stimulus spending stops—a question we’ve asked in this magazine several times. FCM stressed that cooperation amongst all orders of government must continue.
During the question and answer session, Liberal members of the committee, Gerard Kennedy and Bonnie Crombie, drew attention to a survey that their party will be releasing shortly that claims 50 per cent of projects funded through ISF are delayed, and that 54 per cent of municipalities surveyed claim they would benefit from an extension of the deadline.
The UBCM and FCM registered some surprise at these numbers and neither validated the claims made by the Liberal members. In fact, the FCM reported that at its recent AGM it heard a far different story from its members.
Things then took an interesting turn, with more than one participant talking about municipalities as if they were truant high school students.
Parliamentary Secretary, Brian Jean, argued that extending the deadline would punish those municipalities that chose projects that were actually shovel ready—much like extending an exam deadline would punish students who had already studied.
Jean pointed out that municipalities had to sign ISF application forms with the knowledge they were nominating projects that were shovel ready—though nobody was arguing that municipalities didn’t know about the deadline. He said the ISF was an economic stimulus program not an infrastructure program per se and that anyone who applies for funding does so with the understanding of the conditions, similar to anyone who wants to be on the board of UBCM or FCM must abide by the rules.
FCM President Hans Cunningham, in response to Jean’s remarks, said that prior to municipal politics he worked as a teacher, in situations where one out of ten students were struggling with the lesson plan he did not throw that one student to the wolves, but worked with them to build their understanding and ensure no one was left behind.
Both FCM and UBCM emphasized that they appreciate the federal government’s flexibility on the claw back provision, and more recently the elimination of a Treasury Board requirement for municipalities to have invoices sent to the federal government no later than April 15, 2011. After hearing from municipalities that this was unrealistic, the feds have agreed to accept invoices for work completed before March 31, 2011 up to 90 days beyond the deadline.