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Tories hijack Halifax's recession

Economic stimulus funds intended for Halifax were diverted for Conservative Party purposes

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If anyone doubts that Conservatives are politicizing the spending of economic stimulus money, they need only look at how stimulus money is flowing through HRM.

Halifax council held a rushed meeting the afternoon of April 28 to come up with ways to spend $87.75 million in stimulus money. Mayor Peter Kelly, who is a member of the provincial Progressive Conservative party, assured other councillors that he had met with unnamed provincial authorities (the PCs were the governing provincial party at that time) and unnamed federal authorities (the Conservatives were also the governing federal party), and, said Kelly, all concerned agreed that it was entirely up to HRM council to decide how to allocate the stimulus money.

This three-way agreement was necessary because the cost of stimulus projects is to be shared evenly by each level of government.

At the April meeting, council came up with some pretty defendable decisions. Two projects---a new library and a new Woodside ferry---were applied for through what is known as the Building Canada Fund, which funded large projects (more than $7.5 million) with a relatively long time line for completion (by 2015). The library project was approved last month by the feds. Still no word on the ferry.

More interesting was what happened with the broader, less restrictive stimulus funding. These projects could be smaller, but had to be completed by March 31, 2011. For this pot of money, council voted that the entire $35.4 million be applied towards a four-pad hockey arena on Hammond Plains Road.

City officials had previously decided on the four-pad project over the objections of a PC-connected group (including then-PC MLA Len Goucher) who were building a private ice surface on Duke Street in east Bedford. Goucher's group "borrowed" (without repayment) $1.5 million from the previous PC provincial government. Their ice surface is covered by an inflated "bubble" purchased, used from Ontario---which, I'm told, raised safety concerns in the HRM building department.

The four-pad application went into Infrastructure minister John Baird's Ottawa office and, contrary to Peter Kelly's April assurances, was rejected---without documentation. "We don't get anything in writing to formally tell us that they've turned down our application, or why," HRM finance director Cathie O'Toole tells me. "It typically comes as a phone call." The city had already contracted out construction of the four-pad, and so the entire $35.4 million cost will unexpectedly be shouldered by city taxpayers.

The very day the city broke ground on the four-pad, October 14, the federal Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, which falls under Conservative MP Peter MacKay's oversight, announced that it was giving $2 million to Goucher's Bedford arena project. I can still hear the "Fuck you, Halifax council!" echoing from MacKay's office.

Thus rejected, council met, this time in secret, to draw up another list of potential projects for stimulus funding. That list included $2.66 million in sidewalk rebuilding projects on the Halifax peninsula, including on Inglis, South and Robie Streets, and other street and road projects around the HRM.

Recognizing that Baird's office amounts to a "black box" of decision-making---applications go in, but no explanations come out---council also sent in the entire HRM capital project list---a sort of billion-dollar "wish list" of what's needed over the next 25 years. Deciding which capital projects to fund with limited city resources is a tough political decision, a big part of the reason we elect councillors.

Sure enough, Baird's office rejected council's preferred list of projects, and cherry-picked items off the capital project list. Council hadn't asked for it, but stimulus funds will now buy a new $10 million interchange on the Bicentennial Highway for a third entrance into Bayers Lake---exactly what's not needed as the city tries to wean us off our car dependency.

Oh, those $2.66 million south end Halifax sidewalk projects? Gone. They've been replaced by a $3.5 million sidewalk rebuilding project in Sheet Harbour, the one tiny bit of HRM that is in MacKay's district.

Just so everyone knew what was going on, the announcement for HRM stimulus funding was made in, you guessed it, Sheet Harbour.

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