Special Report: Light Rail

New Merulla Motion Threatens to Revisit Area Rating for Transit

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

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.

First Citizens' Jury

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.

Citizens' Jury on Transit

In early 2015, before the Province committed to full capital funding for LRT, Merulla introduced a notice of motion to end area rating for transit.

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.

Dangerous Game

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.

Text of the Notice of Motion

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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted May 12, 2016 at 13:57:03

I'm not sure I would have taken Sam's approach BUT I don't work there and face the daily anti-urban garbage his colleagues love to spew. They don't want to end area rating and start paying for transit, but they want to oppose and veto every urban transit project that comes along. Enough is enough. The likes of these councillors are the very reason Hamilton became the donut hole in the Golden Horseshoe.

They make it their favourite past-time to dump on the lower city and talk about how much it sucks, yet oppose every measure to improve it, all the while expecting urban councillors to blindly sign off on their non-stop gazillion dollar highways and roads across farmland all over the outskirts of the city. For people who's constituents "never go downtown anymore" they all love to interfere in all attempts to rebuild this once proud city. I for one would support all urban councillors in voting against and blocking every single suburban infrastructure project that comes across their table for the rest of this term.
Again, not because I would have gone down this road, but they've forced everyone's hand. Sam isn't initiating anything here. He's responding to years of nonsense.

I support Sam in calling them out on their hypocrisy, classism and anti-Hamilton sentiment. THEY are the problem here. Not him or his motions. It's about time someone stood up to the bullies.

Comment edited by JasonL on 2016-05-12 14:01:07

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By jim (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 04:41:31 in reply to Comment 118479

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 07:18:54 in reply to Comment 118492

I think you're commenting on the wrong website. I don't live with Sam, and never said anything was 'tactful or respectful'.

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By Suburbanite (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2016 at 14:38:31

WE really do need someone with some sense pre-approving Motions before they become public. The recent number of divisive, bullying and unprofessional Motions coming forward are child-like. We need informed leaders making collaborative intelligent decisions based on facts. That is what we elected them to do; not to waste resources with their games on the playground

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By Reality Check (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2016 at 14:49:04 in reply to Comment 118481

Sadly this is the group that has been elected.

As they say, you get the government you deserve.

As the city stands at the precipice of transformational change how much confidence do you have in this collection of parochialists to pull it off?

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By Suburbanite (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2016 at 15:02:17 in reply to Comment 118482

Not much when they resort to issuing public threats and insults

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By stone (registered) | Posted May 12, 2016 at 20:39:11

Never have municipal politics been so interesting.

Hamilton VS Wentworth! No matter who wins, we lose.

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By Not a Lawyer (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 06:27:45

It appears Merulla wants his cake and eat it too! The Motion is carefully and sneakily worded to give the perception that he's proposing the removal of Area Rating in it's entirety for the purpose of fairness and equity in all areas. The key line in his motion is "adding HSR to the general levy". Adding transit to the general levy does NOT stop the Special Infrastructure levy under Area Rating (or other parkland levies). He's trying to get Wards 9 - 15 to pay more for transit but isn't willing to give up the councillors' area rated slush funds for Wards 1 - 8 in exchange. Talk about deceiving the public!

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By Me Neither (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 07:34:10

And why do these "slush funds" exist? Because our spineless Council would not lower taxes in the older city wards. Instead the amount that was recognized as being overpaid was set aside.

Lower the taxes and remove the "slush fund". No problem.

Talk about deceiving the public.

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By Inhocmark (registered) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 10:31:55

Speaking for myself and living in Ward 15, I see nothing good coming from any of this. Based on the (grossly ill informed) opinions I see in local discussions and conversations with my neighbours, doing anything that raises the rates on home owners in our Ward would be the political end of Judi Partridge (who you have to think has eyes on a prize greater than Flamborough at some point). Her entire Transit plan is convincing GO (which already services Waterdown very nicely) to create a bus service between Waterdown and Halton. That way she can have her Transit and tell all the rate payers that she did it without raising their property taxes. I'll just leave that without further comment.

While it is not in my financial interest to say so, if we accept the fact that there is never going to be a reversal of amalgamation, then it should be in the best interest of the suburban wards to do what they can to build up the central city, so as their property values rise, the tax burden is spread out more evenly.

But that's not going to happen. I can't really speak for any of the other suburban areas, but the well is poisoned between Flamborough and the Central City. There really is no common cause that made them a good fit to begin with.

What that means is that we're likely going to still be fighting the same fight for generations.

I do not know what the fix is anymore.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 11:02:38 in reply to Comment 118518

But LRT is exactly that: a high level transit system paid for entirely by the Province!

That's exactly the solution Judi is advocating for bus service in her ward (although GO is supposed to provide regional service, not local bus service, that's what we have HSR for and get gas money from the Province to help finance).

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By Inhocmark (registered) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 11:43:23 in reply to Comment 118526

The GO Plan is mental, but it is all about her Conservative principles.

On the LRT, while the investment is by the province, there are going to be costs that the city will have to bear the burden of. I am pro LRT, but that's a tough sell up here in Waterdown where people are moaning because we pay on average $60 per household directly for the bus services we have in town.

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By Fact Check (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 10:44:10

Pre-amalgamation saw many of the costs associated with the development of communities like Waterdown borne by the Region.

What do people in your community envision if amalgamation were ever undone? Suburban sprawl development is not self sustaining. Where will the money come from to provide the level of service the residents seem to demand but are unable to accept paying for?

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 13:21:06 in reply to Comment 118520

they don't want true de-amalgamation. I, and every other urban resident, should be begging for it. True, 100% de-amalgamation would be a disaster for the suburbs. They want to go back to the old Hamilton-Wentworth region where the old city of Hamilton paid 75% of their sprawl costs. I'd love a full de-amalgamation where the old city of Hamilton pays 0% of their sprawl costs.

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By ryanssockpuppet (anonymous) | Posted May 14, 2016 at 08:18:43 in reply to Comment 118537

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By Inhocmark (registered) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 11:41:08 in reply to Comment 118520

Short answer is: A suburban utopia where they pay less taxes than they do with Hamilton. Streets that are cleared right away, like before it snows. A police man on every corner to catch the evil high schoolers that steal stuff out of unlocked cars.

I am not defending my Ward. It is filled with GTA/Halton transplants that move into the new builds escaping the higher prices of their home regions who then freak out when they see their tax bill and see articles saying that Ward 15 had the second rise in their taxes this year. They quickly blame the lower city while ignoring that a big chunk of that rise is built into the MPAC assessment of their home that has nothing to do with Hamilton. They moan but when it comes time to make their voices heard, 75% don't bother to vote.

Most of them are unaware that life is not going to get any better being an autonomous region, relying on a regional government to provide services while not bringing in sufficient funds. They do not realize that life with the OPP as your primary police service is not going to improve the quality of local policing.

In other words they're delusional.

The only thing I understand up here is the feeling of disconnect to Hamilton. As I am sure the citizens of Hamilton feel a certain disconnect with us. Park of that likely comes down to economics, but another part is that really Waterdown at the very least probably would've been a better fit with another region (ie. Halton)

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By mountain66 (registered) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 10:46:52

You might want to check out Ward 8 Councillor Whiteheads recent tweets & replies. It appears to me he is proposing a Public Referendum on the LRT. Maybe I missed something but I thought we had a recent election & all the incumbents were returned to office and the new-old mayor was an LRT supporter. There was plenty of opportunity then to find out the feel of the Wards & state their position. IMHO they are paid well to make decisions and had plenty of opportunity to take a position in 2014.

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By Suburbanite (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 11:00:04

Chad Collins is saying the same thing according to this weeks Hamilton News: http://www.hamiltonnews.com/news-story/6550408-hamilton-s-light-rail-transit-project-drives-into-political-congestion/ He said we had referendum on RHVP via municipal election by voting in a Mayor who was pro-RHVP but that we haven't done that with LRT. Huh? Does he really think we've forgotten something that happened just 2 years ago?

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 13:23:40 in reply to Comment 118525

They play the double standard when it comes to the poorer neighbourhoods receiving a huge investment.

Voting in a mayor in favour of RHVP for the suburban folk = a referendum. Case closed. Voting in a mayor in favour of LRT for the poor bums in the central city = we need a referendum (or whatever we can conjure up until we finally win a vote that is anti-LRT)

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By mountain66 (registered) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 11:45:21 in reply to Comment 118525

IIRC Chad Collins has consistently opposed LRT but that Councillor Whitehead has voted in favour. If he opposed it he should have made it one of his election platforms and let the residents know his clear position, not one swayed by the few people he has chosen to invite to meetings. I don't see how there is enough time between now & the next election to have a referendum even if they wanted to.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 13, 2016 at 12:41:14 in reply to Comment 118531

Collins has consistently voted for LRT in every vote between the establishment of the Rapid Transit office in early 2008 and the vote to reaffirm Council's request for full capital funding in May 2013. His opposition to LRT is a very recent development, even though absolutely nothing has changed (except that the Province has actually followed through on its funding commitment).

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By mountain66 (registered) | Posted May 13, 2016 at 15:08:15 in reply to Comment 118533

Thanks for the correction.

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By bobby2 (registered) | Posted May 15, 2016 at 14:25:01

The LRT if approved doesn't start to build until 2019 & first rail train won't run until at least 2024! Metrolinxs Plan. Lots of Municipal & Provincial elections during that time. What if Provincial Gov't changes from Liberal to? What if the economy in Ontario falters during these 8 years? Lots of risk that LRT Project will get substantially downsized from it's current proposed Plan! Do you all really trust Liberal's with all their history? Hope for the best, plan for the worse! Most importantly, what will be the Property tax impact? As far as Transit Area Rating, we all know at some point that's going to get eliminated & the Ward wars get enhanced! Worst of all, the faces on current Council will have changed & they won't have to face the music if LRT goes sideways! Hamilton, like it or not is a blue collar town (I'm proud of that), we don't need or expect Cadillacs, Rapid Bus Transit will fit us well & can be implemented much faster before all the Elected Political Faces run for the hills with their cushy pensions! We are "The Hammer" great Rapid Bus Transit will work for us & forget the fancy bells & whistles of trains that Toronto so loves!

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted May 15, 2016 at 16:35:30 in reply to Comment 118568

What on earth does the colour of the collar matter?

Those bells and whistles? They cost less than the BRT you propose we should settle for. You're pitching fear and division.

What will the property tax impact be if we don't get this investment? Your taxes will go up - that is a given.

End of area rating? The current system should have ended long ago - why should parts of this city be subsidized for the same service?

So lower property taxes and equal investment in the city benefits everyone.

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