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Municipalities plead for emergency help to keep vital services going

The voice of Canadian municipalities says communities across the country are facing a financial crisis due to COVID-19 that puts people at further risk.
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and FCM President Bill Karsten speak before a meeting with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Ottawa on November 28, 2019. The voice of Canadian municipalities says communities across the country are facing a financial crisis due to COVID-19 that puts people at further risk. Federation of Canadian Municipalities president Bill Karsten is telling the House of Commons finance committee that plummeting revenues are endangering essential services, from policing to garbage collection. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The voice of Canadian municipalities says communities across the country are facing a financial crisis due to COVID-19 that puts people at further risk.

Federation of Canadian Municipalities president Bill Karsten told the House of Commons finance committee Friday that plummeting revenues are endangering essential services, from policing to garbage collection.

About 25,000 jobs have been lost at the municipal level as a result of the pandemic, with some 7,000 temporary positions going unfilled, Karsten said.

With few fiscal tools available and no legal ability to run deficits, municipal leaders are confronting challenges they've never seen before, he said.

The federation is asking for at least $10 billion in emergency operating money for local governments.

"Make no mistake, municipal leaders are working flat out to help Canadians through this," Karsten said.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said this week the federal government was very aware of the urgency of the difficulties facing municipalities, signalling that money could be on the way.

Mike Hurley, mayor of Burnaby, B.C., cited an urgent need for federal support to sustain fire and police services, sewage systems, the water supply and trash collection.

"We are on the ground every day striving to meet the needs of the citizens and communities directly," he told the MPs on the committee.

He rhymed off a list of federal programs to help businesses through the COVID-19 crisis, noting they do not apply to local governments.

"The vulnerable populations, specifically the homeless and seniors, are struggling in the community," Hurley said.

Cathy Heron, mayor of St. Albert, Alta., said federal support would provide a level of certainty and allow municipalities to continue offering essential services.

"Any support, whether it be operation injections or capital, will need to be fast and easy," she said. "We do not make this request lightly."

Municipal leaders will be on the front lines of reimagining communities in a post-COVID world, but need the tools to do it, she added. The city has already set up a recovery task force to guide it through the rest of the year and 2021.

"Ultimately, the successful future emergence will link back to our ability to access revenues today."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 24, 2020.