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Hamilton’s debt mayor’s ‘biggest concern

 By Kevin Werner, News Staff

 Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina is hinting there could be a few new projects in store for the city that will kick off 2014 with a bang.

But what’s haunting the mayor is the city’s looming debt problem that has Hamilton’s future at a crossroads.

“My biggest concern going forward is our debt load will go from here to here,” said Bratina, during an interview at his 2014 New Year’s Day levee at city hall. “That’s something we have to look at.”

His fear is Hamilton could become like China where it used debt financing to build its infrastructure at a rapid pace in its municipalities, leaving the country with a large debt, and empty buildings.

“I’m terrified what happened in China,” he said. “That building boom occurred in municipalities. They have cities with big apartment blocks with nobody in them. We need to be aware of that.”

The city’s financial staff has already warned councillors late last year about the city’s rising debt levels. In 2013 the tax and rate supported debt is about $294 million, but it’s expected to jump to over $800 million in 2014, and nearly $1 billion in 2015 and 2016. In addition, the city’s infrastructure deficit is at a worrying $1.5 billion. The city’s credit agencies have the municipality at AA, which is considered strong.

As Bratina eyes a re-election bid this fall, he says there must be a discussion among candidates about the city’s finances and what direction Hamilton needs to take.

He’s calling the city’s debt problem “the biggest issue” facing the city since “it will set the stage for (howHamiltongrows) over the next four years.

Bratina, who is expect to register to run again for mayor, but needs to take care of a few things first, follows a “mantra” that says “live within your means, do as much as you can, and make the most with what you have.”

Meanwhile, Bratina says there are a couple of “new projects” that will be unveiled shortly that should excite the community. But he refused to talk about them now.

“There are new things we will be able to talk specifics,” he said. “That will occur, beginning in the new year. The fact it’s an election year will impact on them.”

But as he begins his final year in office, Bratina is eyeing a few on-going projects that need to be finalized first. For instance, the new Pan Am Stadium must be scrutinized to make sure it meets the July 1 deadline. Bratina also wants to see the GO Station is completed, and he is heavily involved in getting the province to finalize the completion of the long-awaited two-way GO service to the city.

“There is a big, immediate payback for both the city and the province,” said Bratina. “It got a little grey when it would occur. We need to continue the discussion.”

Bratina, who is expected to touch on these issues in his Jan. 8 State of the City address at the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce breakfast, is also mindful of the continuing discussion about the city’s transportation issues, including light rail transit. Hamilton has approved its Rapid Ready transportation plan that includes enhancing bus service, and eventually implementing light-rail transit. The one stumbling block is the need to grow the number of people who use the city’s public transit service.

Council will also have to confront the so-called mid-Peninsula Highway project that would begin in Fort Erie and end inHamilton. Although the city is opposed to the roadway travelling over the Niagara Escarpment, Bratina said there are private interests – the Southern Ontario Gateway Council – and other municipalities that are pressing the province on building the highway rather than widening the Queen Elizabeth Way, as provincial officials have offered. He said the preferred option at the moment is to widen the QEW, but that will create traffic chaos.

“There will be some give and take over the next year (on the issue),” he says.

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