The members of Hamilton council who represent rural wards were beside themselves at Wednesday’s GIC meeting when they received a nasty surprise about firefighting costs. Because Hamilton’s former rural wards are rapidly becoming more urbanized the tax burden for fire service for rural residents is increasing. As Mike Zegarac-the city’s finance chief told councillors, “There are fewer rural properties to share these costs.” He told them that the reason the increases are occurring is because firefighting is area rated to reflect the lower level of fire service in the purely rural areas of the wards. None of the rural councillors appeared to hear Zegarac when he told councillors that if area rating were to be eliminated the rural taxpayers would increase by seven percent instead of the additional 2.6 percent that staff is recommending. Staff figures say the additional fire service levy cost to homeowners would range from $150 to $200.
Timing bothered councillors
Most of the criticism had to do with the timing of the bad news. The fact that the situation had only come to light at the eleventh hours, just as tax bills were about to be mailed out, however it appears some councillors may have missed a staff memo on the subject in late March that later appeared on an April 14 agenda.
The rural wards are still served by volunteer fire departments in some cases or by a hybrid of city forces and volunteers. The service is area-rated to reflect the lower level of service, but as the city expands the rural-urban makeup of the wards is shifting, resulting in fewer rural taxpayers available to cover the costs of services like firefighting.
The matter has been kicked ahead to the next council meeting where council will entertain proposals to soften the tax blow by phasing in the increases.