What was intended to be a way of solving urgent infrastructure shortfalls in the old City of Hamilton post-amalgamation,  has morphed into a “political slush fund” for some wards says Mayoralty Candidate Brad Clark. Clark also says there is some confusion on council whether the current Area Rating Capital Reinvestment Program is to end with the current term of council or whether it can be carried on in perpetuity. The plan was introduced in 2012 to deal with supposed inequity in taxation and service levels between suburban wards and the old city wards. Under the area rating scheme the eight old city wards qualified for a small tax decrease, but instead of a tax reduction, taxes were held at previous levels and the money that would have otherwise been saved was placed into a special fund intended to address infrastructure needs in the old wards—over a million dollars a year for each ward. “The money was supposed to go to things like fixing potholes, said Clark, “It was not intended to put Astroturf on a school playing field or to put a cafe in a park,” –a reference to two projects that have been approved. Clark promises to urge council to revisit the issue if elected. “Much of the spending is defensible,” he acknowledged, pointing specifically to Ward five where the money has gone into improvements like sidewalks, or Ward four where several year’s allocation has been set aside to purchase and demolish the old City Motor Inn. “But we have a $195 Million dollar a year infrastructure deficit,” said Clark, “we need to get better focus on this spending.”

The process has attracted the most attention in wards one and two where Councillors McHattie and Farr wave experimented with a concept called Participatory Budgeting(PB). Farr introduced PB last year with mixed results.  Approximately 1200 people participated last year, but the effort was marred somewhat when Farr and community activist Norman Kearney who introduced the concept to the ward, and had done considerable grass-roots organization, clashed over methods and compensation. Kearney withdrew from the process. This year’s participatory budget process attracted just over 500 participants. Some ward 2 residents expressed concern when a postcard was distributed in the ward recently, inviting them to vote on how this year’s allocation should be spent. The invitation which reached 22,000 homes and cost about $5,000 to print and distribute, carried a picture of Farr and the words “finding provided through councillor Jason Farr’s Ward 2 Area Rating Capital reserves.” One resident who brought a card to the Bay Observer said the card made it looked like the money was the gift of the councillor, and not part of a transparent process. Farr has denied approving the card. While the fund is clearly earmarked for infrastructure projects, there have been instances where funds were disbursed for non infrastructure needs—a $6,000 “pop-up” concert downtown for instance. Some of the funds have been used to support school nutrition programs in both wards. McHattie encountered controversy over his proposal to spend $200,000 of his fund to erect a statue to Frankie Venom, the late front man of the band Teenage Head. The public backlash resulted in the musician’s family withdrawing their support for the project…

One author of the reinvestment scheme thinks the process has strayed somewhat from the original intent. The scheme was originally hammered out by a two-person committee consisting of Russ Powers representing the suburban wards and Chad Collins for the old city wards. Powers said, “it was envisioned that the money would go to infrastructure like land purchases, stoplights and sidewalks . I was able to sell it to the suburban councillors because it meant that by accelerating some capital works in the old 8 wards it would have the effect of bumping up projects in all wards.” If the original idea was to clear infrastructure backlogs—something that would have been helpful to all wards; in some cases entirely new projects have been inserted onto the list—a skateboarding facility, a movie night and a golf simulator to name three. Of the approximately $1.3 Million per year allocated to each ward, the original staff recommendation in 2012 envisioned only $100,000 would go to discretionary projects like plaques and other small items. The rest would he handled through the normal capital budget process. But in keeping with longstanding practice of Hamilton councillors’–namely not meddling in each other’s wards; each of the Councillors’ spending recommendations have been approved without any debate or challenge. This leads to the question of the propriety of incumbent councillors in the old 8 city wards getting yet another tool to perpetuate their visibility and approval ratings through the distribution of cash for feel-good projects. While the so-called windfall actually is being paid by the taxpayers in the eight wards in the form of foregone tax reductions, critics say the program runs the risk of looking like largesse provided by the councillor personally. Councillor Brad Clark is opposed to extending the scheme beyond the current term of council. “It is completely unacceptable—people in wards 1 through 8 are paying higher taxes to support this process, they should get a tax reduction”, adding, “Taxpayer funds should never be used for self-promotion.”

Written by: John Best

Providing a fresh perspective for Hamilton and Burlington

One Comment to: Political “slush fund” needs to be reviewed

  1. Dieter Klaus

    August 17th, 2014

    John: Before you and Brad Clark make blanket statements about how these funds are spent you need to inform yourself better about the processes used in different wards. In Ward 1 the councillor does not make the decisions. The public and transparent process is led by a citizen committee: Projects are proposed by the citizens of Ward 1, then the citizen committee vets the proposals against publicized criteria and then the citizens of Ward 1 vote on the projects. Then the citizen committee distributes the funds across the projects using the votes as a guide for priority setting.
    See website http://www.forWard1.ca for details.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (not be published)