Hundreds of municipal politicians preparing to convince B.C.'s Liberal government to help pay for local sewer upgrades, the pothole brigade or a hospital expansion can expect a sympathetic ear but little else at a week-long gathering in Victoria.
Up to 1,500 delegates registered to attend the Union of B.C. Municipalities Convention starting today will receive polite but firm rejections of most funding requests, said Bill Bennett, minister of community, sport and cultural development.
The conventions have historically served as occasions for previous Liberal governments to make big financial announcements - removing the tolls on the Coquihalla Highway, introducing smart meters and electrifying northern B.C.
Bennett said times have changed and saving money, not spending it, is the order of the day.
"I won't be saying, 'You're wasting your time, there's no money,' " said Bennett. "What I'll be saying is, 'We want to understand what your needs are. We want to understand what your challenges are.' Then we'll try to help people solve their problem.
"We don't have a lot of money at this point," he said.
More than 200 resolutions are up for debate at the UBCM convention, including decriminalizing marijuana, banning shark fins and cleaning up tsunami debris.
Kamloops has two resolutions on the table. Coun. Nancy Bepple is spearheading a resolution encouraging B.C. municipalities to follow the lead set by Kamloops and adopt a Braille municipal election balloting system for the visually impaired.
And Coun. Ken Christian hopes to convince B.C.'s municipalities to impose a ban on smoking within 7.5 metres of parks, beaches, playgrounds, public events, restaurant patios, bars, pubs and a public building's doors and air intakes.
But Bennett said the hard issues revolve around funding infrastructure projects.
Kamloops councillors are not deterred by Bennett's dire warning. As Kamloops pushes for health-care expansion funding, Mayor Peter Milobar said he feels confident that projects will get financial support if the municipality puts enough work into making their case.
"It's not a question of will the government spend more money on health care capital construction over the next 10 years but where," said Milobar. "And it's really about working with the government and having the groundwork laid so that as funds are available projects can move ahead."
The fight for more money to fix crumbling infrastructure isn't confined to the resolution session floor. The convention allows officials the chance to have face-to-face conversations with cabinet ministers.
Milobar intends to add his voice to the B.C. Mayors' Caucus, which is proposing a roundtable on aging infrastructure that would include all three levels of government, an affirmation of responsibilities for each level of government and redesigning of the cost-sharing formula on significant infrastructure projects.
Bennett said the province is in talks with the federal government on a new infrastructure funding model. That deal may not be complete until 2014, he said.
The Canadian Infrastructure Report Card released earlier this month by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities says local governments across the country are facing a $179 billion infrastructure deficit.
"They will quite understandably argue that they need more money for the roads and the sewers and the water and the transit. We will say, 'Yes, we know you need that,' " said Bennett.
"But, I will also be raising the issue of local government generally trying to keep their expenses down the way the province does. It will be a good, honest discussion with local government."
Bennett said cities such as Prince George and Penticton have been doing a solid job of managing their expenses. But others, which he did not name, have been giving their workers pay raises and spending a considerable amount of money.
The B.C. Business Council released a study in May that found that municipal operating spending in Metro Vancouver increased 80 per cent from 2000 to 2010.
The study concluded that the 21 Metro Vancouver municipalities spent $3.1 billion on operations in 2010, up from $1.7 billion in 2000.
B.C. government spending increased by 10 per cent over that same period.
"We'll be saying 'You've got to find the best, low-cost alternative to whatever it is that you want to do,' " Bennett said. "I have some real good honest to goodness empathy for the challenges they face, but we have to include in that discussion, however, a discussion about their rapidly escalating expenditures."
Kamloops Coun. Arjun Singh said he feels the City is a well-run community and its government and administration is "mature enough" to listen to good advice.
"I don't have a problem with people looking at our finances in Kamloops and giving us help and advice."
- with files from Charelle Evelyn, Prince George Citizen
THE DAILY NEWS/THE CANADIAN PRESS