By Kevin Werner, News Staff
Hamilton politicians again missed their zero per cent tax increase goal this year, but still managed to approve a 1.5 per cent tax hike, one of the lowest in the post-amalgamation era.
The hike will mean homeowners will pay an additional $53 on a property assessed at $275,700.
Last year councillors approved a 1.9 per cent tax increase, the highest during their four-year term. In 2012 the increase was 0.9 per cent and in 2011 the tax hike was a record-breaking low of 0.8 per cent. It works out to an average tax hike of about 1.3 per cent per year.
“This is a great day for us,” said Mayor Bob Bratina “We are getting more affordable (and) improving (residents’) quality of life.”
Hamilton residents still receive great services, improvements to vital infrastructure, and a renovated waterfront development plan under this year’s budget, said Mountain councillor Tom Jackson.
“This is something to truly celebrate,” he said, adding residents wanted council to “get back to basics.”
Still, a few suburban councillors pointed out that with 2014 the last year for the final phase-in for the area-rating policy, residents in Glanbrook, Flamborough and Stoney Creek will still see a larger tax increase of anywhere between 3.3 per cent to 3.5 per cent. Some residents in the older parts of Hamilton will see either a zero per cent or even a decrease in taxes.
Stoney Creek councillor Brenda Johnson said, for instance, urban residents will see their taxes jump to help pay for full-time fire service from the current part-time service homeowners now receive.
Ward 10 councillor Maria Pearson said for her residents the tax increase with the area-rating phase-in will mean about a 2 per cent tax jump or $71 for an average house.
“I would have loved to see it lower,” said Pearson. “But (the budget) commits to the infrastructure of the city.”
Part of the budget includes $290 million in capital spending.
Flamborough councillor Robert Pasuta said he has had to calm his rural residents who complain they are paying ever higher taxes while receiving no services. He points out they do receive needed services, such as snow plowing, which proved essential during a tough winter, planning, and health.
“Still the amalgamation (issue) continues,” he said.
Other highlights from the budget include over $1 million for new transit service on the mountain, $1.3 million for winter control, and preserving the adult day programs.
Yet as councillors applauded the low tax increase, most of them warned of future costsHamiltonwill need to control.
Bratina talked about managing the city’s union contracts which are set to expire soon. He said after his 2010 election, his wanted the expiring union agreements to be fair to city employees but had no impact on taxpayers.
“That was a really great accomplishment,” he said.
But those same contracts are ending their lifespan and unions may be looking for an increase. In addition, Bratina warned his colleagues that Hamilton’s debt needs to get under control.
“This will be a problem for subsequent councils,” he said.
Ward 5 councillor Chad Collins said that while the tax increases have been low over the last four years, it has been fueled by a residential building boom in Glanbrook and Flamborough that is sure to bust. The city has a “revenue problem” and needs to focus on growing its commercial and retail base so it can afford to do the necessary projects the city needs.Hamilton’s assessment growth has remained about 1 per cent each year for the last four years.
“There is still a lot of room for improvement,” he said.
Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark, who is running for mayor, said that while some residents may have wanted a lower tax increase, he said over the last seven years the city’s tax competitiveness has vastly improved. Its taxes have dropped closer to the provincial average, its development charges have increased helping to lift the burden from homeowners, and council this year approved a new debt policy that could prove to be the most important program councillors have done, he said.
“I’m very pleased with the budget this year,” he said. “We have to be realistic (and) maintain our competitive strategy.”
Ward 1 councillor Brian McHattie, who is also running for mayor, also praised his colleagues for low tax increases over the last four years. But he also saw problems in the city’s future.
“We need to grow revenues,” he said, arguing it will be the next council’s responsibility to solve. “There is still room for spending decreases.