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Some pushback on Hamilton city budget planning

Some pushback on Hamilton city budget planning

Budget time has rolled around again for Hamilton Council and as in every other year, staff are projecting a $49 Million dollar increase in spending which would translate into a 4.1 percent increase in taxes. As in every other year, it will be the job of council to whittle the increase down as much as possible. Finance chief Mike Zegarac said there is enough COVID relief money from senior governments to handle any shortfalls for the current year, but that Cities will likely be on their own in 2022.

One change in the process this year is to get input from the public before staff present preliminary estimates—a departure from past practice. Those delegations would take place November 8th. Acknowledging Ward three Clr. Nann’s point that a month’s lead time does not allow much time for the public to prepare presentations, Zegarac said there will be an effort to allow more lead time for the next round of budget discussions.

Ward One Clr. Wilson wanted to see better alignment between the budget processes and the city’s policies—for instance its declaration of a climate emergency—and how that would affect budgeting.  She referred to the annual parade of city managers with their business plans as an exercise in “minutiae.”

The budget process in Hamilton has evolved over the years, from the 1980’s before “zero-based” budgeting fell out of fashion, where councillors would sit at their desks with a thick stack of computer printouts questioning individual items line-by-line that caught their’ eyes. Some critics suggest the current practice that relies heavily on glossy power points dumbs down the process and hides significant detail. Then as now, there were always councillors who showed a better aptitude for teasing out detail from staff reports and were able to ask better questions.

In a discussion about the water and wastewater budget, there was word of a possible change in the way water bills are allocated that might shift some of the burden from the homeowner to the industrial-commercial-institutional sector. At present water users are charged based on their actual water usage which is assumed to be roughly equal to the amount of wastewater they produce. But that method misses shopping malls, warehouses, manufacturing and public institutions, many of which use relatively small amounts of water but have large parking lots and other impermeable surfaces that contribute to runoff into the wastewater and storm sewer system. Zegarac was asked if changed to the billing system might distribute the burden more equitably.

Staff were also asked why public delegations only deal with the operating budget and not the capital budget and the answer suggested there may be a move in that direction but not in time for the 2022 budget. Staff are still targeting final 2022 budget approval for next March 30th.

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