The glacial pace of change in Hamilton appears closely tied to city council’s extreme reluctance to add more city staff. Their stated objective is avoiding higher taxes, but the stance appears to be crippling the city’s ability to achieve its own stated goals particularly in areas where both public pressure and population growth argue for significant change.
These include increasing cycling opportunities, expanding transit use, reducing air pollution and responding to climate change. In each area, staffing levels are either frozen or minimal, and the refusal to increase them is blocking progress formally recognized by council as necessary and desirable.
Increased cycling is a key objective of the city’s 2007 transportation master plan, but progress has been slow. The annual allocation of less than 1 per cent of the roads budget to bike infrastructure is one reason, but even that $300,000 a year commitment went largely unspent until a cycling coordinator position was approved several years after the budget allocation began. And with still only one staff person dedicated to this initiative, the problem is continuing, leading council to claw back a third of this year’s budget “to allow staff an opportunity to keep pace with prior years’ budget contributions”.
The limited staffing dedicated to climate change and air quality is even more pronounced. Just one person fills both the role of the city’s air quality coordinator and its climate change coordinator. He also carries responsibility for organizing the biennial Upwind Downwind conferences. The understaffing problem was emphasized by citizen delegations when the most recent climate change report was presented to council last month, but drew no response from councillors.
Adding more dedicated staff to these tasks would require council approval of a larger annual operating budget. That may be why the current effort to engage the public in climate change initiatives is being led by a consultant company paid from the city’s capital budget. Borrowing is permitted to cover capital spending, but is prohibited by provincial law for council’s operating budget.
But when the consultant contract ends, the capacity of city staff to carry on climate change efforts is not expanded, leaving it more likely that the ‘solution’ to the next climate challenge will involve spending more monies on consultants rather than developing in–house capabilities.
Transit services comprise another growth area where staffing limits appear to be restricting progress. Council’s transportation master plan calls for doubling ridership but the HSR has no dedicated marketing staff and faces an uphill battle at council each time additional bus service is proposed.
In the most recent example – actually the first in a quarter century where new council money was committed to HSR improvements – only a small portion of the proposed expansion in cross–mountain service was approved. A major reason was opposition by some councillors to adding more staff – in this case the individuals required to drive the extra buses.
In contrast, in energy conservation where the ‘no additional staff’ argument has been rejected, substantial gains have been achieved including lower costs and increased revenues. Council’s 2007 establishment of the office of energy initiatives came in response to volatile and rising energy prices at least partly linked to peak oil, but it was opposed by six councillors primarily opposed to hiring more staff. The results overcame the opposition and the latest report claims an accumulated $32.8 million in savings and avoided costs.
There was also stiff resistance to adding more bylaw enforcement and legal staff in 2012 to deal with backlogs in prosecution. Council eventually agreed to half the number requested and the legal department subsequently reported additional revenues that more than covered the increased salary costs. V