Council is passing the buck by shifting the political heat that radiates from area rating off their own backs onto a randomly selected group of residents.
By Ryan McGreal
Published November 25, 2009
Council has failed yet again to fix the thorny issue of area rating, the city's policy of charging different tax rates to different parts of the city for transit, recreation and fire services. Last night, instead of making a decision on area rating, a slim majority of councillors voted at a Committee of the Whole meeting to establish a citizens' jury of randomly selected citizens to spend the next year studying options to fix it.
Area rating dates back to amalgamation as a way to soften the adjustment for surrounding municipalities, but Hamilton is the only city in Ontario with such a system. As a result, the old city of Hamilton pays nearly three times as much for transit as residents in Glanbrook, three and a half times as much as residents in Stoney Creek, four times as much as residents in Dundas, and nearly five times as much as residents in Ancaster.
Back in 2008, Council acknowledged that the area rating system is broken and voted unanimously to endorse Councillor Scott Duvall's motion to resolve the issue before Council's mandate ends in the 2010 municipal election.
However, Councillors are in dispute as to whether they had agreed to resolve area rating before the mandate ends and implement it in January 2011 (Duvall's contention), or else to resolve it in 2011, as Mayor Fred Eisenberger argued last night.
At last night's committee meeting, staff presented a recommendation to eliminate area rating by raising suburban rates and lowering urban rates so that everyone pays the same rate and the overall change is revenue-neutral for the city.
I've been arguing that this is a terrible idea for transit: it would further deepen the conflict between urban and suburban ratepayers without generating any new money for transit, and it would effectively force the HSR to redistribute its already inadequate resources across an even larger area (given that the current rating assumes the old city gets more service and the suburbs get less service).
On the other hand, if suburban rates were raised so that they are closer to what the old city pays - to $148 on a median-priced home compared to $195 on a median-priced home in the old city - the city would receive over $7 million in additional funding, which could then be used to improve service across the city.
Unfortunately, the staff report is committed to making any change revenue-neutral - even though council did not instruct them to do this when they asked for a recommendation - and did not offer alternatives for the Councillors to consider.
The Committee of the Whole rejected the staff report but then narrowly passed Mayor Eisenberger's proposal for a citizens' jury. A compromise by Councillor Tom Jackson to have the citizen's jury run for six months instead of a year was narrowly defeated.
Setting aside the fact that this means Council won't vote on area rating reform before the 2010 election, the decision feels like a cop-out. Council is passing the buck by shifting the political heat that radiates from area rating off their own backs onto a randomly selected group of residents.
Councillors who supported the citizens' jury argue that it represents "public consultation", but real public input entails broad-based participation, two-way dialogue between the city and residents, and a final council decision that reflects the public will.
A citizens' jury does none of this. A randomly-selected committee of residents may or may not do a better job of researching alternatives than staff, and they may or may not do a better job of choosing among options than elected Councillors; but they simply replace one narrow, closed process for another.
It's hard not to conclude that the real value is political: the novelty of an uncommon deliberation process and the convenience of a scapegoat if the decision turns out to be controversial (and it will).
Another interesting thing to come out of this was the sharp urban/suburban split in votes. With one notable exception, all the urban councillors voted against the citizens' jury and all suburban councillors voted for it. It almost precisely mirrors the recent vote split over the proposed HSR fare increase.
The suburban councillors, who have the most to lose politically by fixing area rating, uniformly voted for the citizens' jury, which won't present its recommendations until after th 2010 election. On the other hand, all the urban councillors except Councillor Bob Bratina voted against the citizens' jury.
Today, Bratina posted an essay on his website ("Area Rating", 2009-11-25) explaining his decision:
Blanket removal of Area Rating would bring a modest decrease in taxes in the older part of the City, but a significant double digit increase to those in the newer areas. Nevertheless Council has set a date for implementation of a phased-in plan to deal with the problem. The date was and continues to be January 2011. Mayor Eisenberger understands the volatility contained in the application of these measures and put forward a process that allows for broader public understanding, and a buffering to the still-extreme emotions stirred by what has been said and done in the past.
He added that the Ward 2 residents he has spoken with don't know anything about area rating, so it is important to precede any decision on area rating with a period of public outreach.
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