Hamilton

Hamilton council sends $213M police budget back for review as it looks to cut 7.9% tax hike

In a rare move, Hamilton council has sent back the police service's proposed $213 million budget — up 10.24 per cent from last year and the largest component in the city's budget.

Majority of councillors say police should take a 2nd look at spending as city faces 'unprecedented' pressures

People sit around a table in council chambers
Hamilton council voted in favour of a 5.85 per cent tax increase in 2023. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

In a rare move, Hamilton council has sent back the police service's proposed $213 million budget for further review as elected officials attempt to trim the 2024 tax levy.

Coun. Cameron Kroetsch, who sits on the police service board's budget committee, put forward the motion during city budget deliberations Tuesday. 

He's been an outspoken critic of police's request for a 10.24 per cent increase from 2023 and said there was a lack of scrutiny of the budget at the police board. 

He told council it's "not unreasonable" to ask the police board to look for more ways to reduce its budget at a time when the city is facing significant financial pressure. Policing costs account for 16 per cent of the average property tax bill — the largest component of the city's budget, said Mike Zegarac, general manager of finance. 

"This is not a signal about supporting the police," Kroetsch said. "This is about asking someone to review a budget and come back based on a directive."

A man sitting.
Cameron Kroetsch is councillor for Ward 2, sits on the police board and is a member of the board's budget committee. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

Kroetsch said the last time council sent back a police budget for further review was in 2011 when the service asked for a five per cent increase. The police board refused to make changes and their original request was ultimately approved by council, according to media reports from the time. 

On Tuesday, councillors voted 12-3 to try again. 

"This is fiscally responsible," Coun. Craig Cassar said. "I think in an unprecedented tax increase it makes sense to ask all individuals to look for efficiencies." 

Council has pledged to cap the city's portion of the tax increase to four per cent, which covers municipal services and new housing and homelessness initiatives. Right now staff is proposing a 4.3 per cent increase.

But the city faces other expenses tied to provincial funding changes, which staff said in a report will push the levy up a total of 7.9 per cent. The total increase equals about $380 more in property tax for the average residential home assessed at $385,000. Assessments continue to be based on 2016 values.

Potential savings in hospital plans, litter collection

Council found some areas that could be cut Tuesday, which staff will report back on next month before the final vote on the budget. 

Through a motion by Coun. Mike Spadafora, council unanimously voted against raising the tax levy by one per cent for hospitals. 

Last year, Hamilton Health Sciences and St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton had requested a total of $462 million, over many years, from the city to help support major redevelopment projects. 

"I would support the hospital redevelopment, but I cannot support $462 million," Spadafora said. "It doesn't seem like the right time and it definitely is not the right number." 

Other councillors said funding hospital projects should be a provincial responsibility.

Council is also willing to pull back about $3.3 million that was to go toward an enhanced litter clean-up program, as proposed by Coun. Tammy Hwang. The city could modify that program by hiring 11 employees instead of the proposed 28 to routinely clean up downtown, business improvement areas and a "little bit" around trails, Hwang said. 

Coun. Nrinder Nann has asked staff to look at how a staggered roll out of new tenant protection programs could cut costs. These programs include the defence fund to help tenants fight eviction, the safe apartment bylaw to improve property standards and the renovation licence and relocation bylaw to prevent renovictions.

Coun. Craig Cassar also got support from council to have staff review its plan related to development charge exemptions and consider making up the funding shortfall over a longer period of time. 

Council will vote on the overall budget on Feb. 15.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samantha Beattie is a reporter for CBC Hamilton. She has also worked for CBC Toronto and as a Senior Reporter at HuffPost Canada. Before that, she dived into local politics as a Toronto Star reporter covering city hall.

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