The decision by Hamilton Council to deny an interim plan to use Area rating funds to keep the SoBi bike sharing platform alive was just the latest round in what is becoming an ongoing culture war between the progressive wing of council and the old line councillors. Council and staff were caught off-guard when Uber notified council last week that it planned to terminate its contract to operate Hamilton’s bike sharing system. Ward 3 councillor Narinder Nann had proposed that $400,000 be taken out of the Area Rating accounts for Wards One, Two and Three where the service is concentrated. That would have allowed the service to continue to the end of the year.
The discussion came at the end of an almost 16-hour council session, and as is usually the case when Hamilton City Council conducts marathon meetings, tempers flared. The motion to use area rating funding to prop up the bike sharing program was defeated on a tie vote. It was only then that councillors realized that in defeating the motion they had inadvertently voted down the second part of Nann’s motion would have instructed staff to spend the interval seeking out another operator. That forced councillors who had voted against SoBi to now vote for reconsideration, in order to allow staff to find somebody to run the system. That prompted Councillor Brad Clark to observe that “ we just voted (Nann’s motion) down, but now because different people are proposing it, we’re going forward.”
Several councillors who voted not to provide interim funding, cited assurances given by staff when the bike plan was first launched that the city would not be asked to provide any funding. As Councillor Chad Collins observed, the scheme was launched with a $1.6 million grant from Metrolinx to purchase the bikes. The province subsequently provided operating grants which ended with the defeat of the Wynne government. “The money came from a provincial government that spent money like no government ever spent,” he said. “You may have noticed that we have a new government with a completely different approach.” Then, in an apparent swipe at the newcomers on council—Nann, Wilson and Danko— he pointed out that the two previous councils had been successful in keeping tax increases below two percent, but the first budget by the new council came in with almost a three percent increase. “It’s become a hallmark of this (current) council to spend money we don’t have,” he said.
Coun. Wilson who supported Nann’s motion, observed that in the case of the Ancaster Arts Centre, “the costs escalated from 12 to 20 Million dollars and yet we found the money for that…we even used gas tax money…and most constituents (in Hamilton) will not use that facility.”
Somehow the LRT got pulled into the discussion when Mayor Eisenberger who supported the bike scheme countered those councillors who voted against the bike proposal because of the earlier promise that it wouldn’t cost any money. He said, “It’s so Hamilton to say we want it for nothing. We dropped that same argument on LRT. No other community in the country has not participated (financially) in LRT. No other community in the country has not contributed to their bike-share programs.” Two weeks ago some councillors expressed surprise to hear the mayor in a radio interview imply that it was widely known that Hamilton would need to come up with a share for LRT “It was always deemed to be a $3.5 Billion project, this whole notion that it was only a billion dollars was wrong at the get-go.” Every councillor reached by the Bay Observer said it had always been their understanding that Hamilton would not be asked to contribute to building LRT and that the cost would not exceed $1 Billion.