You never know at which point in the agenda a Hamilton Council meeting will see matters come to halt. In Wednesday’s case it was right at the beginning of the meeting when council was dealing with correspondence, which normally is quickly disposed of in a motion to receive. Wednesday, though, there were more than a dozen pieces of correspondence including three from ward 10 activist Viv Saunders protesting changes in the way the suburban wards will be taxed for fire service. 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. But that is an average—some rural ward residents will pay significantly more. Mayor Fred Eisenberger remarked that the situations is just another reason why area rating should never have been introduced.
Timing bothered councillors
When the matter was discussed at committee earlier this month, most of the criticism had to do with the timing of the bad news. The situation had only come to light at the eleventh hour, 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.