‘It’s going to cause a war,’ warns Ancaster adviser against eliminating zonal classification
It will be up to the next city council to settle the decades-long debate over acreage assessment in Hamilton.
Toward the end of their term, city politicians balked at whether or not to scrap the contentious tax system altogether, wary of the big hit a massive shift to the general levy would bring to rural residents.
Instead, they opted to cut some services from the plan, including recreation, street lighting, sidewalk maintenance, sidewalk snow removal and park purchases.
But key zonal levies — including transit and neighborhood infrastructure funds — have been left under the system that was adopted with the merger 21 years ago.
“It’s a stepping stone,” the adviser said. Brad Clark said Wednesday after a sometimes charged debate split between urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods.
The initial move would avoid imposing sweeping tax changes on rural residents — “the bills would be significant” — but would still open the door to a “collaborative approach” for broader deliberations next term, top councilor Stoney Creek said. .
Services to be removed from zonal pricing and funded as part of the citywide tax will result in an average decrease in tax bills of $2 for urban residents, while rural residents will see a average increase of $14 to $19 this year, staff noted.
Area assessment is a revenue-neutral tool that distributes the municipal tax burden based on service levels and the location of properties within the city.
It is divided along rural and urban borders and the former boundaries of Hamilton’s “Old Town”, which merged with Stoney Creek, Ancaster, Dundas, Glanbrook and Flamborough in 2001.
In 1999, Special Advisor David O’Brien recommended an area rating only for fire and transit services. But during the merger, more services were included before the city settled down with the current mix.
Those eight services make Hamilton a lone wolf, noted analysis by finance staff from 13 other municipalities that showed none had more than three location-based levies.
The differences that ushered in the assessment of the area have faded, staff pointed out, noting that data shows residents travel up to 13 kilometers to reach recreation centers, which are also planned for rural areas. And the parks, for example, are “accessible to all residents” of the city.
During Wednesday’s budget session, the board debated the merits and weighed the impact of phasing out all zone ratings over periods of four, six, eight and ten years.
Not everyone welcomed the exploration, including Coun. Lloyd Ferguson, who argued that eliminating the system would create a “win and lose” dynamic based on geography.
Buses, for example, are running empty or not at all in different parts of his Ancaster neighborhood, he said. “It will cause a war and I would just like to keep the peace.”
There are “winners and losers,” the adviser said. Maureen Wilson agreed, but the west councilor argued the current system was not ‘fair’ to residents of wards 1-8, where household incomes are lower than wealthier wards in the city.
Transit advocates have called for HSR to be added to the general fee to improve service in Hamilton. Staff noted that this possibility is also tied to an ongoing transit “(re)vision” exercise.
A hybrid taxation option for public transport could offer an “exemption for true rural areas”, but include urban and urbanized parts of former municipalities, the adviser suggested. Jean-Paul Danko.
“I would be open to that kind of compromise,” the West Mountain adviser said.
Com. Sam Merulla, who also spoke about the benefits of adding public transit to the general tax, recalled the bad blood around the City Hall Horseshoe in the early days following the merger.
“It was quite hateful towards downtown,” said the veteran east councilor who is retiring at the end of this term. But Merulla urged his colleagues not to “repeat history” and to “do the right thing”.
Mayor Fred Eisenberger called the finance staff’s recommendation to move the handful of services to the general levy “a step forward that we should all grasp and appreciate.”
But the con. Judi Partridge, citing concern over a Flamborough tax spike, rejected the proposal.
“Thus, the rural community will bear these costs, but they will not receive these services.
The finance staff’s recommendation, backed by a strong majority of council at the end, will see the area classification for sidewalks, street lighting and recreation phased out over four years from 2022.
Sidewalk snow removal, meanwhile, changes in 2023 and is tied to the decision to provide municipal service along transit routes in Hamilton and not just Ancaster.
Park purchases will be transferred to the general levy once the city has repaid internal debt related to green space transactions made under the policy.
Firefighting, which is delivered through an urban-rural model and full-time, volunteer and composite services, will be further reviewed for potential change in 2023.