By Gord Bowes, News staff
Clearing snow from sidewalks was the dominant theme in councillor Terry Whitehead’s first “virtual town hall” meeting Monday.
Residents seemed more interested in talking about snow removal than the 2014 budget, which was supposed to be the focus of the night.
Participants in the event were among the first to hear the tax hike in city’s draft budget was down to 1.4 per cent, but that received nary a comment.
“More and more people are calling my office and asking why the city doesn’t do it,” Whitehead said to someone asking about snow clearing.
The meeting, which combined a live, online and telephone audience, was a first for the west Mountain councillor.
Ward 8 residents received calls to their homes several minutes before the meeting started and were told to stay on the line if they wanted to listen or take part. Anyone else could participate by calling a toll-free number.
There were about 30 people watching the proceedings live in the council chambers at city hall and the event was livestreamed at joeycoleman.ca.
Whitehead said the teleconferencing company hired to manage the event told him 3,500 people participated by phone.
He said was confident that number of people took part and happy it was a big increase over the traditional way. In past years, about 100 to 120 people would attend his budget town hall meetings in person, he said.
“Citizen engagement is so important to me and we’re looking at different ways ensure people get involved in the civic process,” said Whitehead about adding the virtual aspect to the meetings.
The two-hour meeting started with a 35-minute presentation by staff of the draft budget’s details, which was followed by a question-and-answer session.
During the staff presentation, residents learned what started out last summer as a 2.8-per-cent tax increase for 2014 had been pared to 1.4 per cent, or an average hike of $50, in the latest draft budget.
Ward 8 homeowners, said Whitehead, would only face a 0.9 per cent average increase.
One man who called in to participate told the west Mountain councillor he had no problem with an extra charge for the city to get snow off sidewalks, something Whitehead said would cost about $34.
“That’s peanuts, because already I have spent over $250 for cleaning off my sidewalks and driveway,” said the caller, who noted he was medically unable to do the work himself.
Two people complained that the bylaw requiring residents to clear snow off the sidewalks in front of their homes should be more strictly enforced, while another said he felt a sidewalk plow would do a poor job, leaving a layer of snow that would turn to ice.
After the meeting, Whitehead told the Mountain News he is waiting for more feedback on the idea of adding $34 to tax bills for sidewalk snow removal. He is also looking at a way to get volunteers involved to use city-owned machinery and keep the tax increase down to about $2 per household.
Whitehead said the $2.5 million the city paid out for slip-and-fall injuries, mostly do to snow or ice, had to be considered when looking at about $3 million for the sidewalk plow program.
“There’s got to be a better way,” he said. “That’s what I am looking at doing.”
The councillor took 15 questions during the event, including ones on transit and a new bike sharing program, as well as concerns about expanding the commercial-industrial tax base and the cost of making all necessary road repairs. Currently, the city spends about $45 million a year on roadwork, while it would need to spend nearly triple that to keep on top of all work that needs to be done.
Whitehead said anyone who does not want to be robo-called for future meetings can call his office at 905-546-2712 or email him at Terry.Whitehead@hamilton.ca and be removed from the database.