Residents are being asked how to deal with Hamilton’s massive infrastructure debt, but some councillors worry that the large public consultation program starting this fall will create unrealistic expectations or the false impression that citizen recommendations will be adopted. The city has a $2 billion backlog in repairs of existing infrastructure that is growing by $195 million each year.
Similar challenges face many Ontario communities as property taxes appear insufficient to cover the cost of providing expected services. In Hamilton, the crisis has left council begging federal and provincial governments for subsidies, and staff scrambling to patch pipes, roads, recreational facilities and public housing while watching the situation get steadily worse.
Now the public will be asked the appropriate way forward, with the first step seeking feedback on satisfaction with the existing state of the infrastructure and other types of city services. That will be followed in the winter by consultation on more specific options for maintaining the city’s $15 billion of hard services.
But the process has some councillors worried. Tom Jackson says he has always encouraged citizen engagement and uses many ways of obtaining it from his ward 6 constituents, but he wants it made clear that councillors are the final decision makers.
“I just want to make sure that expectations at the end of the process are understood that council reserves the right always to either accept, adopt, amend, reject, defer back.” Jackson instructed staff.
Chad Collins noted “there’s really no wiggle room” in the city’s capital budget and the public feedback won’t be any different from what he heard during the 2010 elections that more has to be spent on fixing roads and sidewalks.
“The response will come back to council we need to do more and we’re in a position where we’ve been told by finance we can’t do any more than we’re doing right now without some pretty big chess moves,” he predicted.
Just overcoming the annual shortfall of $195 million would require a 25% tax increase or a similar rise in the number of taxpaying residents using the existing services. There’s provincial pressure for higher population densities and revitalization of under–utilized industrial lands, but Hamilton has continued to focus on trying to develop new greenfield areas such as the aerotropolis.
Public works head Gerry Davis suggested a possible outcome could be public acceptance of lower service levels instead of higher taxes.
“If the community said the roads are fine in the condition they’re in and our focus is potable water, then the deficit in roads is somewhat reduced because we’re saying that the level that is there now is acceptable to the public.”
Brian McHattie suggested “there’s a value in education” about the city’s fiscal dilemma and argued that “educated folks will make the right decisions and they’ll work with the city in a positive way.” He also sees public engagement as a way of avoiding the election of someone like Toronto mayor Rob Ford.
“You see someone elected … with this gravy thing, and it’s just all fantasy – a good chunk of it – but yet people grab onto that because they think city hall is wasting all kinds of money and that there’s lots of money that can be produced out of nothing.”
The $376,000 contract with Dialogue Partners includes training city staff from all departments in how to do effective consultation. City manager Chris Murray acknowledged that “we don’t have a specific policy that speaks to the organization about what citizen engagement is and how it ought to be undertaken,” and sees this process as a major step in changing that. V