By Kevin Werner, News Staff
Hamilton politicians’ mantra of their residents paying the burdensome costs of provincially downloaded programs finally reached directly to the friendly ears of Ontario’s new municipal affairs minister.
But Liberal MPP Ted McMeekin, a formerHamiltonalderman, defended the province’s historical funding system to councillors during nearly two hours of question and answers Aug. 15 at city hall.
“The bottom line is we need to be in this together,” said McMeekin, who reiterated his statements to reporters after his meeting with politicians. “We need to talk to each other not at each other. It’s not a lot of fun standing up there.”
Councillor Sam Merulla said the province had continued to drop programs and added costs onto the backs of municipalities, saying that about 98 per cent of Hamilton’s property taxes go to pay for services he says the province should pay for.
The result, said Mike Zegarac, general manger of corporate finance, is each property owners is paying an extra $500 in property taxes because of what he sees as provincial services being paid for at the municipal level.
“When is it going to happen (uploading)?” said Merulla. “On the social services front there has been uploading, but on the other departments there has been no uploading whatsoever.”
Hamilton is facing a $195 million infrastructure deficit, and the city has recently lost about $58 million in road funding from the province, said Councillor Brad Clark. The city is also looking at paying a large portion of the light-rail transit operating cost once it’s built andHamiltoncould lose money to buy needed new land ambulances because of changes to the funding formula. The province also stopped providing Hamilton its special social services funding that assisted the city over a number of years, he said.
“We are trying to balance our budget,” said Clark. “We are receiving less money than we received eight years ago, four years ago.”
But McMeekin said the city has saved about $63 million from the province uploading such social programs as Ontario Disability Support Programs, and Ontario Works.
The Queen’s Park has added $42 million this year to the Community Homelessness Preventative Initiative for a total budget increase of $294 million across the province, and it has provided municipalities about $4 billion in social housing funding over the last 11 years.
City officials disputed the savings claims, arguingHamiltonactually saved only $11 million instead of the $63 million the minister quoted. The dispute is at heart of a $45,000 independent audit the city is preparing to show provincial officials the city has not received as much benefits from the uploading as other municipalities have experienced.
“If there are figures in dispute, often it’s a matter of not talking the same language,” said McMeekin. “The city can do what it wants.”
He defended the province’s recent actions, arguing it is “ahead of schedule” when it comes to uploading services scheduled to be completed by 2018 as required under a memorandum of understanding signed with the Association of Ontario Municipalities.
“If you look at where we were and what was there and where we are now we’ve had increases in areas that we took back as the city has had increases,” said McMeekin. “We predicated the savings on the existing situation on what would have to have been paid had the uploading not occurred.”
The province is providing about $130 billion in new infrastructure money acrossOntario, according to this year’s budget, including $29 billion for transit projects. About $15 billion of the transit costs are allocated to municipalities within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas.
Ward 1 councillor Brian McHattie said Hamilton also faces a revenue problem. Even though over the last four years the city has approved on average close to zero tax increases, there remains pressure to raise taxes to collect vital revenue to pay for programs and services.
“We need to grow. Hamilton has tonnes of potential to grow,” he said.
Despite a few tense questions, for the most part McMeekin’s visit, part of his 44-municipality Building Bridges tour of which Hamilton was his first stop, was congenial with councillors he is very much familiar with. A lunch was held for McMeekin prior to the meeting, and the former mayor of Flamborough met with Mayor Bob Bratina for a few minutes in private. The mayor even gave McMeekin a bottle of wine from Puddicombe Estate Winery in Winona for his troubles.
While McMeekin didn’t directly announce any new programs to Hamilton councillors on the eve of appearing before the Association of Ontario Municipalities annual meeting in London, Ont. Aug. 18, the ministry is open to any ideas municipalities may present to raise their revenue.
“The province is open to engaging with the municipalities to discuss strategies for facing their financial pressures,” stated Yanni Dagonas, communications advisor to McMeekin stated in an email.