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Budget decisions delayed

Mar 10, 2017

Councillors have pushed off final decisions on the 2017 budget until March 23. Those could include more staff cuts, less money than promised for the HSR, and either good or bad news for more than a dozen proposed spending additions.

One group seeking a funding bump-up is the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction who are hoping for $30,000, their first increase since the committee was established in 2005. “Without this increase,” the request explains, “HRPR will face significant challenges in meeting its current mandate and will be limited in the new work it's able to support.”

An extra $87,300 is being sought by the parks department so spray pads can be opened earlier in response to rising temperatures. Currently they open on June 20. The extra monies would permit “an earlier opening date beginning the last week in May in 2017, or activate subject to a Stage 1 Heat Advisory, whichever is earlier.”

After two years of steep fare hikes, the HSR request for previously promised tax support ran into challenges when the new director made a presentation to council in late January. She was told to come back with alternatives as low as one-third the $2.4 million sought by HSR to accommodate population growth.

Another contentious budget request would give $200,000 to the privately-operated Tourism Hamilton to pursue more visitors and hotel guests. The group is promising to become financially independent by imposing a “voluntary” hotel tax, explained PJ Mercanti when he spoke to councillors in late February.

His funding plea seemed to be well received by some councillors, but was challenged by Matthew Green as “a private subsidy on top of a private subsidy”. The ward three councillor pointed to the city’s already existing “very substantial development incentive program downtown that has provided up to 100 percent development charge deferrals or waivers to some of the developers that you were referencing are partners in this program.” He also took issue with Tourism Hamilton’s voluntary tax plan. 

“Residents do not have to pay this fee but nobody really knows that and for me that is problematic because when they see a line item on the receipt that appears to be a tax then the assumption is that it’s a government-levied and government-received tax,” Green argued.

Mercanti responded that 15 other cities including Burlington and St Catharines have these Destination Marketing Programs “so this is not something that we’re introducing to the market for the first time.” He said “a lot of people come to expect it,” and Hamilton needs to aggressively go after more tourism and “steal the lunch of these other cities.”

Three of the other undecided budget appeals would add staff positions but have no impact on city spending because they are all fully subsidized by the provincial government. But they may get turned down anyway in the wake of council’s decision to reduce staff.

Two of the positions would bolster children’s and home management services while the third would be assigned to food inspections. It’s just a half-time job added to the current 11.5 public health staff doing food safety risk assessments and inspections of restaurants, food trucks and special events. Last year there was an increase of 248 inspections.

Emergency and Community Services division is also seeking an extra $76,000 for its Neighbourhood Action Strategy “to support community development activities, programs, grants and staffing in eleven Hamilton neighbourhoods. This was previously covered under the capital budget, but is actually an annual operating expense.

There are also eleven budget asks that are not being recommended by senior staff. They include $184,000 to hire two driver development and safety compliance officers and the city got a failing grade because its 400 heavy vehicles racked up “120 collisions and 29 convictions in 2014-15. Another not recommended item would add $240,000 to the public works department “to maintain existing service levels” on roads after development increased the inventory by 24 lane kilometres in 2015. 

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