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Bumps in the road

Jan 24, 2017

Since an area-rating deal was struck in early 2012, the eight councillors in the old city of Hamilton have individually decided how to spend more than $50 million of city monies. The record of this ward-by-ward allocation of annually topped-up slush funds exposes councillors’ dramatically different transportation priorities with some installing speed bumps while others pour money into smoothing out roads.

For example, in just three wards there’s been nearly $13 million of “Special Capital Re-Investment” spending on repaving work, while just one million has gone for that purpose in four other wards. On the other hand, the dozen bicycling infrastructure projects that have consumed a quarter million dollars have all taken place in just three of the eight wards – with two being the only places where monies have also been allocated to planning for complete streets.

While the spending is officially subject to full council ratification, in practice the councillors wield control over the funds replacing the normal practice of professional staff utilizing fixed criteria to determine priorities. The unusual budgeting practice was crafted as a way to reduce suburban opposition to the phasing out of variable tax rates for fire, recreation and other services that had persisted since amalgamation in the six former municipalities.

That change would have raised taxes in the former suburbs while lowering them in the old city – something that suburban councillors were not prepared to stomach. So instead of a tax cut, the rates remained the same in the old city and extra monies are shared out to the councillors representing wards one to eight.

“As a result, a tax shift was initiated resulting in the establishment of eight reserves for the former City of Hamilton wards to address the infrastructure deficit within the respective wards,” explains the staff introduction to the 2017 capital budget. “Wards 1 to 8 will have $1.68 M allocated annually to address ward specific infrastructure and capital.”

That annual addition to each councillor’s pot doesn’t have to be spent immediately so overall slush fund allocation varies significantly across the eight city wards. The decision-making process also differs dramatically.

In an attempt to share responsibility, former ward one councillor Brian McHattie established a participatory budgeting process that allowed his constituents to vote on how the monies in his pot were used. His successor, Aidan Johnson, has continued that practice, and it has also been adopted by Jason Farr in ward two and Matthew Green in ward three, but not by the other five councillors.

Sam Merulla’s ward four has used $8.7 million to this point, while only $4.1 million has been spent in ward three which has had three different councillors since 2012. Ward eight (Terry Whitehead) was next lowest at $4.4 million, followed by ward seven (Donna Skelly preceded by Scott Duvall) at $5 million and ward 6 (Tom Jackson) at $5.7 million used. Ward one has spent $7 million, and both ward two and five have utilized $8 million.

A spending summary issued by city staff earlier this month shows that the three who have participatory budgeting are the only councillors who have spent monies on bike lanes and other cycling infrastructure, and that they have also put very little towards road work. In contrast, Sam Merulla, Chad Collins and Tom Jackson have each allocated over $4 million to repave roads, almost entirely on quiet neighbourhood streets.

The other low-spender on roads has been Terry Whitehead in ward eight with just a single quarter-million dollar project in the first five years, but he’s about to catch up to the big road spenders with $4.3 million allocated to that purpose in his ward this year. Pavement spending in ward seven largely determined by former councillor Scott Duvall has been slightly under $2 million so far.

Recently elected ward nine councillor Doug Conley is complaining that his neighbourhood streets are losing out because suburban councillors like him don’t have a slush fund. “If I had an area rating fund, I would have had all the roads done,” Conley told the Stoney Creek News last month.

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