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Election budget shortchanges HSR

Jan 04, 2018

The proposed tax increase in this municipal election year is one of the lowest in a decade even before councillors try to whittle it down. In trying to minimize a tax hike, transit gets shortchanged once again as the budget fails to include all the monies promised to improve the HSR.

The 2018 draft budget would add $80 or about 2.4% to the average tax bill. That’s already a dollar less than what was approved last year after several months of council-cutting, and it assumes a bigger police ask than is actually being sought. It also doesn’t include the provincially-decided education portion which usually lowers the overall tax hike.

The current figure is only half as high as the 4.8% that staff had predicted just last fall. Since then, staff say they have “worked diligently” to achieve reductions without negatively affecting services.

“Inflationary and contractual pressures were reduced by $11 million, energy and fuel estimates were reduced by $2 million,” they report, “and revisions to the employee expenses (Full Time Equivalents, realignment of job codes, etc.) resulted in an additional reduction of $1.5 million.”

Capital spending approved last month makes up more than a third of the proposed increase. The draft doesn’t take account of this week’s arbitration decision in favour of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority that will add about $1 million to the budget. But that’s less than half of the savings from the lower than expected police budget. It takes spending of $8.2 million to add one percent to residential taxes.

The HSR portion of the budget will disappoint transit advocates who bitterly opposed council’s decision last April to “postpone” the year-three funds for the approved 10-year bus strategy. Monies for the first two years of the growth strategy came exclusively from fare hikes, with 2017 being the first point when city taxes were supposed to kick in – and then council balked.

While the year-three monies are in this year’s budget, it doesn’t include the promised year-four monies. Instead, last spring’s postponement has now become permanent and the promise is now just to “implement year-three of the 10 year local transit strategy with a focus on meeting service standards, keeping up with growth and understanding our customers.” And according to the budget there’s no catch up in the proposed strategy for 2019-2021.    

Despite November’s emergency response to cancelled HSR buses, the promised 58 new drivers also don’t appear in the draft budget. It acknowledges the crisis but simply says the November decision “allows the division to hire in excess of the budget complement, which will provide the relief needed to reduce reliance on overtime and return the service to full operation.”

Lost in the coverage of the November decision was the fact that adding drivers was expected to reduce the HSR budget by cutting overtime costs.

“Annually the use of overtime in order to prevent service cancellation and offset absenteeism under the current model costs approximately $4,734,566,” explained the November staff report. “The policy recommended … would allow flexibility within the complement whereby service would be delivered at straight time and require up to an additional 58 FTEs, which with benefits, represents approximately $3,947,942. This approach is expected to deliver a net reduction of $786,624.”

The limited details on the proposed HSR 2018 budget show no change in revenues thereby indicating no expectation of increasing ridership this year. It’s unclear whether a fare hike is planned. Council has voted to add at least ten cents every year to fares, but decided to skip that increase in 2017. It appears that another vote would be needed to override the earlier automatic increase decision.

The full HSR budget is scheduled to be presented to councillors at the Friday, January 26 meeting of the general issues committee starting at 9:30 am.

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