Federal budget targets skills training, infrastructure spending

NANAIMO – Municipalities will get more money, planning time and flexibility for infrastructure spending

Canadian municipalities can expect long-term consistency from the federal government when it comes to infrastructure spending and planning.

Infrastructure was one of the key targets in the federal budget, which was announced Thursday by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

Over the past year, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities lobbied the government for more consistency in infrastructure spending and for the most part received it. Instead of 20 years asked for by the federation, $14 billion will be allocated over 10 years through the Building Canada Fund, allowing cities to address key infrastructure needs.

“I think that provides adequate time for cities to plan for in addressing infrastructure requirements,” said Nanaimo-Alberni Conservative MP James Lunney. “Communities like Parksville, Port Alberni and Nanaimo benefit significantly from these programs.”

In Nanaimo, city council is considering adding a one per cent property tax rate increase over five years to address a projected $19-million deficit in infrastructure spending.

In total, about $70 billion will be spent across the country on infrastructure over the next decade. The Community Improvement Fund will set aside $21.8 billion from gas tax fund payments beginning next year, municipalities will receive another $10.4 billion over 10 years under incremental GST rebates, First Nations will receive $7 billion for infrastructure needs on reserves, and federal properties will receive $10 billion for upkeep.

National Parks will receive $19 million for road and bridge repair.

Jean Crowder, NDP MP for Nanaimo-Cowichan, said while infrastructure investment is welcome, the numbers the Conservatives have provided won’t keep up with inflation or the amount of projects required.

“Any money will help, but the way it’s being allocated means it won’t keep pace with what has been invested in the past,” said Crowder. “So there will actually be funding available for fewer projects. There is very little new money here, if any. It has all just been rebranded.”

Cities will, however, have more flexibility in projects for which they apply for funding. Investments considered infrastructure under the gas tax fund now include highways, local and regional airports, short-line rail, short-sea shipping, disaster mitigation, brownfield redevelopment, culture, tourism, sport and recreation.

The gas tax fund has also been doubled from $1 billion to $2 billion by the Conservatives, and is also indexed which means it will be at $2.9 billion by 2014-15.

Overall, the 431-page federal budget was fairly austere with only about $900 million in new spending as the Conservatives attempt to chip away at the deficit. Flaherty, who delivered his eighth and possibly last budget, said the projected deficit will be $18.7 billion for 2013. With modest spending and a little help from the economy, the feds hope to reduce the deficit to $6.6 billion by 2014 before bringing forward a balanced budget – actually an $800 million surplus – for 2015, which also happens to be an election year.

Jobs and matching skilled workers with existing vacancies was also a key item in the budget.

The government will provide $500 million over four years to help skilled workers fill positions as workers retire. Lunney said apprenticeship programs will help fill the worker void with $5,000 in funding per apprentice from the federal government, matched by the province and employer for a total of $15,000.

“We have a lot of skilled trades people who are close to retiring, especially in our part of the country,” said Lunney. “So we’ve expanded opportunities for apprentices which should also be good news for Vancouver Island University.”

Currently, there are 240,000 youth between the ages of 18 and 25 currently unemployed in Canada, a higher level than from before the recession began in 2008. An additional $240 million will be spent on aboriginals for skills training.

“There is tremendous opportunity for First Nations in our resource sector but they need the skills to obtain those jobs,” said Lunney.

An additional $90 million will be spent in internships and filling positions in high-tech areas where there is a high need.

Another budget highlight that could benefit the mid-Island region is VIA Rail’s $54.7 million allotment next year for equipment and operations and $58.2 million over five years to improve service to remote communities.

Crowder says she doesn’t think the mid-Island qualifies, but Lunney said, “Island Corridor Foundation may well qualify for that,” referring to a move to reintroduce passenger and freight rail services along the E&N rail corridor.