Friday , 24 March 2023
Home Opinion City budget: Always adding, never subtracting

City budget: Always adding, never subtracting

For the first time in memory Hamilton’s budget will likely see a tax increase in the area of 7 percent. That’s the number that staff first presented to the new council last fall and that is the likely number when all is said and done. It is quite a departure from the budget dance Hamilton taxpayers are used to seeing. In most previous years staff would present an ugly scenario to council at the beginning of the process (and by ugly, we mean maybe 4 percent) and then council would go to work on the budget and usually whittle the increase down to something under 3 percent.

But not this year. There are many reasons. First, with the advent of COVID, senior governments allocated billions to the municipalities in the form of emergency relief. Transit and public health were the big ones, with municipalities like Hamilton receiving more money than the pandemic was actually costing. Prudently staff, anticipating that windfall was a one-time affair, were able to stash some of that money and use it to cover costs as the pandemic abated.

But its all over now. There is no more senior government money and the municipalities are on their own. Hamilton is not alone in approving unprecedented budget increases. Burlington just passed a 7 percent budget increase, Kitchener nearly five percent, Toronto 5.5 percent. Only London seemed to escape the trend, bringing in a budget increase below 3 percent.

There are two budget categories that have kept Hamilton’s increase as high as it is. One is referred to as “business cases,” where each of the departments makes a PowerPoint presentation to council, outlining the services they provide, and what they hope to accomplish in the coming year. They provide a preliminary departmental budget part of which includes a pitch to increase staff. In 2023 the various business cases propose to add 118 full time staff to the roughly 8,000 existing city staff complement.

The other category that adds to the budget total is euphemistically called “Council referred Items” These are service enhancements that council has added to the budget. Some of them were voted by the previous council, but about $5 million of them came from this new council.

The business cases for adding staff as well as the council referred items all carry compelling justifications. But in both cases they presuppose that the entire machinery of municipal government in Hamilton is operating at absolute peak efficiency, and therefore any service enhancements will by definition, require more money and more bodies. The city’s auditor general and the Red Hill inquiry provide hints that this may not always be the case. We have a situation where municipalities are competing with each other for staff, offering inducements like extra days of working remotely, because apparently nobody, especially in the public sector, wants to come to work anymore.

One of the problems with this scenario is that there is absolutely no incentive for senior bureaucrats anywhere to talk about re-engineering government, and nobody around Hamilton’s council table or in any of our legislatures is talking about it either. It is simply assumed that what we have now, in the words of Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss is “the best of all possible worlds.”

1 Comment

  • Lots left out.Ongoing scandals and cost related to them.RHVP,sewergate,THF(Tim Hortons Field)Councilor Brad Clark’s lawsuit against him.Who paid that?The tax payers?This city lost money on 300 bike share which does the loss look like with 900 bikes?With such a large tax increase the Hamilton tax payers must see a line by line report that’s transparent.First let’s see that the lack of Trust from past mayor and council is gone.

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