Hamilton council approves new city budget, with 5.8% tax increase and $214M for police

Hamilton city council has passed a 2024 budget that represents an estimated 5.8 per cent residential property tax increase, or about $286 more per household compared to last year.

Councillors approved the 2024 budget in a 10-6 vote Thursday

Man in suit with glasses
Coun. Brad Clark is photographed during a council meeting in Hamilton in 2023. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

Hamilton city council passed a new municipal budget that will see a 5.8 per cent residential property tax increase, or about $286 more per household compared to last year. 

"Every bean we save is another bean in the bank," Ward 9 councillor Brad Clark quipped during the Hamilton budget committee meeting Thursday. 

The metaphor of the bean counter, and the financial prudence it suggests, came up several times during the day-long discussion, as councillors emphasized efforts they were making to keep property taxes as low as possible while supporting services needed more than ever. 

By 3 p.m., council's general issues committee voted 10-6 to pass the increase. A special council meeting an hour later formally passed the budget, which included the police's full request of $214.8 million.

The final result is less than the 7.9 per cent increase staff once recommended. General manager of finance and corporate services Mike Zegarac told committee members that reductions councillors worked on prior to and during the meeting saved the typical Hamilton household about $100 compared to what was on the table before. 

A city spokesperson told CBC Hamilton that residents' 2024 final tax bills mailed out in June will reflect the new budget.

Zegarac said that the new 5.79 per cent property tax increase can be broken down as:

  • 1.64 per cent for city services
  • 1.6 per cent for investments in housing and homelessness
  • 2.55 increase to account for provincial legislation

Savings in litter management, delaying housing programs 

In a report to council, city staff outlined the financial pressures Hamilton is under. 

"Municipalities are facing increasingly complex challenges, such as tackling homelessness and climate change, without the proper financial tools to solve them," the report read. 

"New financial realities like inflation, rising interest rates and rapid legislative changes impact the city's ability to deliver services and invest in infrastructure."

People sit around a table in council chambers
Council is set to pass the 2024 budget on Thursday. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

During the meeting, councillors moved motions on proposals that would save the city some money. Changes to how the city will finance exemptions to development charges represented $6.5 million in savings. Reductions such as hiring fewer staff for litter management saved $1.6 million. Changing how the city pays to replace diesel-powered waste management equipment with natural-gas powered equipment saved about $1.2 million. And extending the timeline to roll out new rental housing programs saved $1.4 million compared to previous proposals. 

"I don't think I've ever worked so hard and seemingly achieved, on paper at least, so little," Coun. Jeff Beattie (Ward 10), who moved the motion on waste equipment, said in describing the work that went into finding savings.

Although they supported the motion, Coun. Alex Wilson (Ward 13) expressed concern with deferring new measures to protect renters.

"I have serious concerns about taking this … from an emergency-scale response," Wilson said. "I think it's always worth investing in keeping people homed. It's always worth investing in housing as a human right."

Full police budget approved in 10-6 vote

Hamilton Police Service will receive the additional funding it requested from city council to cover its operations over the next year.

In a 10-6 vote during the special GIC meeting, councillors approved the increase — making the police budget a total of $214 million, up from last year's $198 million — after a sometimes tense debate.

Before the vote, Coun. Alex Wilson asked others not to approve the increase, saying there needed to be more "accountability" from the Police Services Board.

Council asked the police board in late January to review its financial ask, in an attempt to trim the 2024 tax levy, but the board returned it to council earlier this week unchanged. Thursday was the first time councillors spoke publicly about the review process since then.

Coun. Nrinder Nann (Ward 3) said she was "really disappointed" there was no change to the police budget and explained the rationale for sending the budget for review.

"We sent it back with the hope of seeing some savings come back in earnest — not as a political statement to say that we are against policing, not as a political statement to say anything other than this is a year in which we need every single public service to provide rigour to fiscal management," she said. 

Coun. Cameron Kroetsch (Ward 2), who sits on the board, said it has been "absolutely inflexible" about the budget process, critiquing both lack of approvals and discussions in the initial budget process and the lack of review.

"The board never issued a mandate to its staff to reduce the budget," he said. 

Coun. Clark said he supported the police budget and that because council didn't provide a specific reduction target for the board, it would be "a little problematic" to hold them to account "on a cap that we didn't provide," he said.

Coun. Esther Pauls (Ward 7), whose son is a police officer, said the police chief "does not do his budget on a napkin," but is well-informed by his senior leadership team.

"The police chief has done a great job and we have to stop, we really have to stop degrading or saying the police budget is a runaway train," said Pauls, who was recently cleared of conflict of interest in police matters and was able to vote in support. 

'What makes this so difficult'

Before voting at the GIC meeting, councillors shared their overall thoughts on the budget, the budgeting process and the state of municipal finances in the city. 

Councillors Matt Francis (Ward 5), Tom Jackson (Ward 6) and Mike Spadafora (Ward 14) said they believed the budget's tax increase was too high. Francis called it "crazy."

A woman at a desk
Coun. Esther Pauls (Ward 7) worried about the cost of catching up if there isn't the needed spend on infrastructure and services. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Coun. Craig Cassar (Ward 12) said investments were necessary to maintain city services people rely on and address problems including homelessness. 

"To characterize this as irresponsible and reckless spending is not putting effort into understanding what's here," he said.

Coun. Pauls said residents "do not want to see infrastructure and service decline only to kick the can down the road when it will cost us much much more to catch up." 

Coun. Nann said municipalities across the country are facing the same difficult task of "standing up to care" for communities and "invest in affordable housing" and other services in record numbers. 

"We are at a place where complete systems of social support are at the brink of collapse… That's the tension. That's what makes this so difficult," she said.

How council voted

For: M. Wilson, Kroetsch, Nann, Hwang, McMeekin, Pauls, Danko, Cassar, A. Wilson, Horwath

Against: Francis, Jackson, Tadeson, Clark, Beattie, Spadafora