Councillor Sam Merulla’s idea of making the funding of transit a city wide responsibility is not an entirely bad idea, but it is premature; given that Glanbrook and Flamborough have virtually no transit, and the former towns of Ancaster and Dundas have so little that what is in place is not used. Normally the bill is presented at the end of dinner, not before it begins. If the city’s proposed 10-year master transit plan is implemented, service to the suburbs will improve in fairly short order and once that happens a phasing out of area rating on transit would hopefully be more palatable. But there is a flip side to the area rating equation and that is the so called “area rating capital reinvestment” fund that allows each of the 8 original Hamilton wards to spend a total of something in excess of $13.4 Million each year instead of a property tax decrease that they would have otherwise been entitled to under area rating. The problem with the special funds, is not so much the principle under which they were established—namely that the old city wards had more crumbling infrastructure than the newer wards and some catch-up in capital spending was warranted. The issue is more how the allocation of spending has evolved. Essentially each ward councillor gets to direct the spending–some after meaningful public consultation– some not so much. The recommendations by the ward councillors are never challenged when presented to the full council; effectively creating a de-facto personal discretionary spending fund for each of the 8 councillors. This confers a dangerous advantage to incumbents, who have been returned to office by a whopping 94% since the fund was established. A sitting incumbent in the original 8 wards has not been defeated in the past three elections. In some wards it must be acknowledged the funding goes to roads and sidewalks as was envisioned, but there have been instances where the funding has been used to fund eye-catching feel-good pet projects that probably would not have passed muster in a city-wide capital budgeting process. The other problem is that this fund was established under the premise that it was to be temporary, but now appears to be enshrined in perpetuity. At a time when the city is searching for scarce cash to fund transit and other needed infrastructure, perhaps it is time to return this now $13.4 Million a year bonanza to the general treasury.
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