Feds stimulate city's wish fulfillment

Economic stimulus funds bring Halifax a new library---that is, unless provincial pols pull the rug out from under it.

Thanks to the collapse of the global financial industry, Halifax is getting a new Central Library, an additional Woodside ferry and a four-pad hockey arena in Bedford. Unless, that is, provincial politicians gut the deal with back-room deals and behind-the-scenes maneuvering to divert the money.

All three projects have been on the city's wish list for many years---the library has been discussed since before the amalgamated Halifax Regional Municipality was created in 1996---but were left unrealized for lack of funding.

Tuesday, however, Halifax councillors were notified that $87.75 million in economic stimulus funds were available, but only if they submitted an application to obtain the money by the end of the week.

Of the $87.75 million, $31.5 million comes via the time-sensitive federal economic stimulus program passed in January. That pot of money must be split three ways between federal, provincial and municipal funds, and projects built with it must be completed by March 31, 2011.

Council therefore unanimously agreed the entire $31.5 million will go to the hockey arena. That project is "shovel ready"---construction could start as soon as June.

The remaining economic stimulus funds, totalling $56.25 million, are part of a second pot of money called the Build Canada Fund. This money is also split three ways between the feds, province and city, but any projects paid for with the fund don't need to be completed until 2015.

The BCF money must be spent on real assets costing more than $7.5 million, and not on operating costs or planning. But the BCF program also expanded the kinds of projects that are typically funded with federal money to include "cultural infrastructure," a category that includes libraries.

While city politicians have talked about a new library for over a decade, there has never been an outside source of funding that could be used for it, until the BCF money became available. City staff therefore recommended that the library be funded at $50 million, with an additional $12 going to the Woodside ferry, another "wish list" project that wasn't included in the city's recent five-year transit expansion plans. (The $6 million shortfall for BCF projects will be funded through city debt financing.)

Council ultimately agreed to that recommendation, but not before councillor Reg Rankin tried to side-track the library. While Rankin said he supports the eventual building of the library, he wanted all the BCF money to go toward transit projects identified in the five-year plan; those transit projects, said Rankin, benefit the entire HRM, while the library benefits mostly downtown.

"What's the best candidate for what fits under BCF?" asked Rankin. "People on the street would say it's transit. On a day-to-day basis, a bus at their door every day resonates more than a library."

But other councillors argued that a new library benefits the entire region. Moreover, they said, transit programs are already identified in the five-year plan and, while funding hasn't been secured for those projects, it will ultimately come from a combination of gas tax receipts, property taxes and fare increases. The BCF money, they said, should be used for projects over and above those already in the pipeline.

Councillor Steve Streatch said he would support the library and ferry recommendation, but only if a secondary list of 19 other projects---including the transit programs---was included with the application. Council went along with that suggestion.

And therein lies the rub, said some councillors.

Giving the province an application with two "priority" projects---the library and ferry---along with an extended list of other projects allows provincial pols to "pick and choose," and reject the city's clear intent to move forward with the library, they said.

There are already "rumblings" that MLA Len Goucher is trying to get the arena built on other nearby property not in the city's plans, said Brad Johns. Why? "It's all about developers," he said, shrugging.

"You're handing someone a shopping list who's about to have an election," said Tim Outhit, agreeing with Johns' criticism.

The province will approve the list, with any changes, by next month.

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