Editors Note: We asked the City to speak to the budget and provide clarification. Staff stated they will respond to media inquiries after the January 9th budget overview presentation.

The City of Hamilton finally released its 2015 budget package Monday, giving four days to review hundreds of pages of detailed documentation before making the final vote on users fees and water rates.
The preliminary tax increase is between 4.4% to 5.4% depending on choice of calculation.
– 3.8% represents a maintenance budget (one with no service changes or required enhances compared to 2014)
– 4.8% is the budget with required budget increases, but not including expected assessment growth.
– 5.4% is the 2014 budget with $4,480,723 in “recommended enhancements”
– 4.4% includes a .4% increase in tax assessment growth from an estimated increase property values
4.4% represents an increase of $136 for the average tax bill.
To get a 0% property tax increase, Council must cut $32,560,000 from the 2014 budget.
Each decrease of 1% equals approximately $7.4 million dollars in the City budget.

Budget Process Starts

Council will vote on user fees and water rates during their first budget meeting on Friday.
Citing the election, the budget release was delayed from November to January – depriving everyone involved of time to carefully reviewing the over 1000 pages of budget documentation.
TPR plans to carefully review the entire budget package and provide comprehensive reviews of departmental requests during the budget process.
Council’s final vote on the budget is scheduled for Thursday, March 26. Public input will be heard on February 24 from 3 to 7pm.
Users fees, if passed on Friday, will take effect immediately – separate from the operating and capital budget processes. (Full budget process schedule on City website)

Water Budget and User Fees

Most City of Hamilton user fees will increase by 2% in 2015, with some exceptions. Transit fares will be debated separately in the budget process.
Water rates will increase 4.2% for an annual increase of $24.10 for the average residential home in Hamilton in 2015.

Budget Summary Highlights

Staff are not providing detailed descriptions or answers to budget proposal until after presentations are made to Council during January and February.
Compensation is, as always, the biggest single cost pressure for the City budget. The increase in compensation costs is 2.2%, below the consumer price index of 2.8%.
Paramedic Service is asking to increase its staffed transport ambulances by 15.8% adding 30 full-time paramedics, one supervisor, and purchasing five new transport ambulances.
The increase, if approved, will add four transports to day shift and two to night shifts.
The cost: $2,392,540. It is expected the province will cover 50% of the cost, leaving $1,267,230 to be covered by property taxes.
Hamilton’s paramedic service is stretched, with numerous Code Zero Ambulance Events – when one or zero transport ambulances are available to respond to 911 calls – each month. Hamilton often relies upon Halton, Brant, and Niagara to provide ambulances when none are available in our City.
Paramedics respond to an average of 180 calls per day, and the average call from dispatch to leaving hospital is 1 hour and 42 minutes.
HSR is proposing a “10 Year Local Transit Strategy” by adding 25,000 hours of bus service, requiring the purchase of an additional 10 buses per year to the HSR fleet.
The proposal includes no other details and is not priced in the budget package. Staff are not answering questions about the cost or plan until at least February 6 when HSR is tentatively scheduled to present to Council.
A rough calculation dividing the 25,000 hours into additional weekday-only service improvements gives approximately 11 extra shifts of service. (HSR shifts vary from 7 to 9.5 hours depending on route and time of shift)
TPR asked City staff what is the average cost per hour of HSR service. This is public information and we hope to receive it shortly. Once we have this, we’ll be able to calculate roughly what the costs of the improvements are.
DARTS must receive $1,750,000 in new funding to add 65,000 trips to meet provincial Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act requirements.
Social Housing costs are increasing $2.5 million due to provincial benchmark requirements for operating costs of social housing and some program improvements.
Winter Control is a $2 million pressure as salt costs increase, and more roads and cycle lanes being cleared.
Closely related:
New Roads are adding an additional $680,000 to the budget (separate from winter control) to maintain 90km of new road built since 2009.
Police are expected to request an increase of $4.3 million, the Police Services Board deferred voting on their budget until January to find more cost savings.
Media Buyer is a new position proposed for the City Manager’s Office. The City spends well into the seven figures on advertising each year, mostly using old media platforms without much measurement of impact. The City is hoping the media buyer will decrease advertising costs and increase impact by transitioning the City to using new media platforms. (This should concern old media advertising platforms – the City is one of the biggest advertising spenders in the city.)
Website hosting costs for the City are estimated at $100,000 for 2015. The City is going to the cloud and have selected Acquia as the provider. Acquia specializes in hosting Drupal CMS sites, and the new City website will use Drupal as its CMS. There is no change in the status of web staff, who remain in contract positions. Council will debate in 2016 if the City will have permanent web staffing.
Cutting Red Tape is costly and the City is looking to spend $111,000 yearly for a new “Open for Business Coordinator”. TPR will take to calling the position the City’s “Red Tape Czar”.
Arts Funding will come near the end of the budget when Councillors are least likely to approve any new spending. Council approved a new Arts master plan in 2014, but deferred the $500,000 budget increase required to achieve the plan to the 2015 budget process.
Sidewalk Clearing is also in the end of budget improvement mix. This $5.5 million cost to have municipal sidewalk clearing will probably be decided based upon how much snow Hamilton sees this winter. Not much, it won’t be approved as a nearly 0.75% tax increase.

Live Coverage on Friday

The budget overview presentation is this Friday at 9:30am. TPR will broadcast live on our homepage: www.thepublicrecord.ca