The Ward 4 Councillor has struck back with an email notice of motion threatening to push a vote on area rating for transit if Council rejects provincial LRT funding.
By Ryan McGreal
Published May 12, 2016
Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla is engaging in some serious brinkmanship in his push to get Council onside with a reaffirmation of their commitment to the Provincially-funded light rail transit (LRT) system currently being designed by Metrolinx and City staff.
After last night's snap vote at Council to defer Councillor Merulla's LRT motion to the May 18 General Issues Committee, Merulla has struck back with an email notice of motion threatening to push a vote on area rating for transit if Council rejects provincial LRT funding.
Area rating is the system under which different parts of the city pay different tax levy rates toward the cost of public transit, and receive correspondingly different levels of transit service as a result. Hamilton is the only city in Ontario in which different areas within the urban boundary pay different levy rates toward transit.
The scheme is a throwback to pre-amalgamation days when suburban municipalities paid Hamilton to supply them with basic bus service. It should have been eliminated when Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough, Glanbrook, Hamilton and Stoney Creek were amalgamated into a single municipality on January 1, 2001.
Because of area rating, if a rated community wants an increase in transit service, the entire cost must be borne by just the ratepayers in that area instead of being spread across the general tax base. This provides a sharp disincentive to improve transit service in under-served areas and undermines the whole point of operating as a single municipality with an integrated city-wide transit system.
The result is a balkanized transit system in which it is not only politically impossible to expand transit service into under-served wards, but also politically impossible to expand transit service in wards that have full service because the councillors in area-rated wards don't see the value.
At the time of amalgamation, transit service was joined by fire protection, culture and recreation services under the area rating model, but Council acknowledge that the system was unfair and needed to change. In late 2009, they voted to establish a Citizens' Jury to review area rating.
The Jury came back with a recommendation to have a single service levy across the urbanized area of the city while not charging a service levy to people living outside the urban boundary.
Council ended up punting a decision until after the 2010 municipal election, but they approved a four-year phase-out of fire, culture and recreation area rating starting in 2011. (The political compromise that produced this plan also produced the annual Area Rating Capital Levy funds for wards 1 through 8.)
Unfortunately, Council decided not to touch area rating for transit, kicking it down the field to the 2014-2018 term of Council. Now we're in the middle of that term, and Council has already indicted - without anyone actually casting any votes - that they're not going to touch area rating for transit until the 2018-2022 term.
At the time, he agreed to withdraw the motion and have the matter of area rating rolled into the mandate of the Citizens' Jury on Transit, which was also reviewing the City's LRT and transit plans. The Jury was originally supposed to review the city's LRT plan and recommend a course of action, but history overtook its mandate when the Province put uncertainty about LRT funding to rest in May 2015.
The Jury convened anyway and carried out its mandate with a set of recommendations to ensure LRT is successful and transit serves the broad interests of the city as a whole.
The Jury reviewed area rating for transit as part of that mandate and came to the following conclusion:
There is a whole city perspective to city building by improving transit across Greater Hamilton that warrants consideration of a change to the area rating of transit. We recommend that an urban-rural area rating model be an objective as transit in the former suburbs is improved and the whole public transit system becomes coordinated and efficient. New development that comes with building rapid transit will provide new tax assessment, which will benefit the whole city.
This just makes sense, and there is no reason, aside from parochial politicking, why Council doesn't finally put area rating for transit to bed in this term.
Now Merulla is playing a dangerous game by using area rating as a lever to try and force Council's hand on LRT. His motion is problematic on several levels:
It implies that if Council goes ahead and votes to reaffirm LRT support, he'll let the area rating matter rest for now. That is, it effectively forces Council to choose between fixing area rating and confirming LRT.
That is an unfortunate horse trade, because both LRT and area rating need Council leadership and there is no good reason for Council not to exercise that leadership on both files.
The motion also takes a bullying tone toward a bloc of Councillors who already seem upset at Merulla's LRT motion in the first place.
This may be a better time to build bridges with Councillors who are nervous about showing support for LRT than to drive them into the arms of Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins, who has recently built a cottage industry out of being Council's token LRT opponent.
Following is the text of Merulla's notice of motion:
Whereas a motion I sponsored relating to the elimination of area rating for Public Transit was deferred as a result of the unanimous support of Council for Light Rapid Transit.
Whereas transportation and public transit continue to be significant and important public policy matters; and
Whereas public transit (known as HSR) in the City of Hamilton remains a priority for Council; and
Whereas public transit is currently apportioned to residents based on geographic area and service levels; and
Whereas Council has stated on numerous occasions, it supports a system wide approach to public transit which includes enhancing service levels;
Therefore let it be resolved:
That in the event the Light Rapid Transit Project does not receive a commitment from City Council by accepting the one billion dollars from the Province of Ontario.
That City staff report back as part of the 2017 Budget process of adding HSR to the general levy; and
That this report align with the overall City Transit strategy.
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