Accidental Activist

Time to Grow Up

As a growing city we need to have dreams again. We need to think about what we want to be when we grow up.

By Ben Bull
Published March 14, 2005

When I was 11 years old I didn't want much out of life: a new pair of jeans, a Liverpool football strip, a racing bike, a miniature television for my bed room - just a few of the 'necessities' of youth.

But, no matter how much I crossed my arms, stamped my foot, or practiced my long faces - they were having none of it. My Dad told me to grow up. Mum said, "Get a job."

So I did. In fact, I got three. Every morning at 4am saw me running around the streets of Leeds delivering milk to my slumbering neighbours. By 7 I was out delivering their morning papers. And on the weekend I delivered some more.

My Dad ran a little suburban post office where little old ladies came to collect their pensions. He was thrilled to sign up his youngest customer. Every Saturday I would line up behind the old biddies and plop my 7 pounds 50 onto his counter. And every week I would watch it disappear into the black hole beneath.

I had decided to try and save for the slick miniature television in the back of the latest Argos catalogue. It had a built in radio and a compartment for batteries. It was a 'Sony' too, which my Dad said was "a good make."

It was cool.

I kept the catalogue in a drawer by my bed, and tried not to look at it too often.

But as the weeks dragged by I became irritated and impatient. My little blue bank book was taking way too long to fill up, and I was forever falling asleep in class. I contemplated early retirement or going back onto parental 'welfare'? (About 50 pence a week if I remember rightly).

But then, something happened: I got rich.

One day as I watched another hard earned pay packet disappear beneath the counter, my Dad announced proudly, "That's it, son. You've done it."

"Done what? If you mean that broken window, it wasn't me, it was..."

"No, no, no. You've saved 70 pounds. You've done it!"

Later that day I filled out the order form in the Argos catalogue. And several days after that - it came.

Somehow, nothing I have owned since has ever been quite so cherished.

This tale came back to me last week as I read about the ongoing postponement of our municipal budget.

The image of Messrs DiIanni and Co. standing with their arms folded and waiting for someone at the Province to cough up their $19 mil reminded me of a sour faced 11 year old, stood before his stern looking parents asking for a new telly, a Liverpool football strip, and everything else he felt he richly deserved - but knowing full well that he had not a hope in hell of getting any of it.

And so, with this unshakable image in my head, I decided to try and uncover some analysis of our current predicament. Why has it come to this? Why does our whole fiscal predicament feel so damn childlike?

Sadly for me - for all of us - the answer is elusive. Through all the conversations, newspaper stories and website postings I have scoured, accurate and timely information and analysis on this subject is hard to find. The Spec has been largely silent. Our council has merely added to my confusion.

I found some insightful commentary in my Dundas Star. In their February 25, 2005 editorial they re-capped last years budget process during which our councilors, "bumbled their way to approving a 5.5% average tax hike for weary property owners."

For this year the paper lamented how "Hamilton politicians continue to go through the motions as they hike your tax bills."

The Star also asked, "how has it come to this?" But, alas, they appeared to be as mystified as me.

The city has received federal tax money…the province has provided money for some public health care spending. Yet somehow when February rolls around, politicians are staring at a $51 million budget deficit. ... Have they not been listening to what their constituents have been saying about no more tax increases?

Star columnist Kevin Werner continued this line of thought, asking, "From the province's perspective, why should it provide the money, when Hamilton politicians can't make the necessary spending cuts to keep the city financially afloat?"

So why do we now stand in the Queens Park doorway and sulk? Why do we insist on begging and bullying our Provincial guardians with the petulance of a spoiled child?

We could argue about the justification for an increase in our social services allowance, but really, I don't think that this is the point.

Regardless of the outcome of this standoff, our city council has simply failed to grow up. Now at the risk of sounding petulant and immature myself, let me qualify that remark, and let me do it by picking through the rubble of some of the more enlightened editorials and analysis I have scoured, and cementing all this together with some thoughts of my own.

First, some facts:

  1. This year, as with last, I will again be asked to pay more money for fewer>

  2. I am, as a property taxpayer, a customer of our municipal services. And, as a customer, I am quite certain that I am not getting good value for my money.

    Six years ago I lived in a three-bedroom semi in Toronto and paid $1,900.00 in taxes. I lived a three minute walk from the TTC and a hop, skip and a jump from my place of work.

    Here in Hamilton I own a four bedroom semi, pay $3,200.00, have a 90 minute commute, and access to a bus every 20 minutes.

  3. My Hamilton property taxes are among the highest in Canada.

  4. About $400 of my annual tax bill goes into servicing our municipal debt - i.e. nowhere. I have absolutely no idea when this debt will be paid off (and probably won't believe anyone who tries to give me an answer).li>

  5. Despite escalating legal costs and consulting fees, my City Council appears to have done little to reduce these inefficient expenditures for the next year. In fact, recent decisions, such as the Red Hill Creek lawsuits, have ensured these will only continue along the same lines.

And finally, of course, at the time of writing, all budget deliberations for the month of March have been postponed. As a result, it is not clear when our 2005 budget will be approved. In the meantime, important institutions and initiatives like the tree cutting program and AGH budget must sit and wait.

So, if this is a fair summary of our current state, then why does it matter?

This might seem like a dumb question, but given the almost complete lack of coverage and priority that this issue has generated, I can only assume that it really doesn't matter.

After all, if our pockets really are this empty, shouldn't someone be panicking? Nobody is panicking right now. I don't even see too many worried faces.

As it stands there is every indication that things may still get worse for our municipal post office account. Among the many trends and bleak statistics that have surfaced, the following nine look particularly ominous:

  1. All indications are that our departmental budgets will continue to climb. In a letter to the Spec in February, ex-City Manager Bob Robertson noted that staff turnover continues to be high - and expensive. The Police service has just broken the million dollar budget barrier for the first time. None of this looks like it's going into reverse anytime soon.

  2. The business tax to property tax ratio continues to slide - the wrong way. Although accurate information about this is hard to come by, the latest best guess estimates indicate that somewhere between 20 percent and 40 percent of our current income comes from business taxes. If you wonder who is shouldering the tax burden, just look in the mirror.

  3. Our city has no long-term plan or strategy on how to deal with this year-in and year-out budget deficit kafuffle.

  4. No more Future Fund. Our council is planning to raid our Future Fund to supplement our operating budget. This fund was set aside to help support future projects. When and how will any future capital projects get off the ground?

  5. While the recent decisions to pass on gas tax and health tax revenues to municipalities are a huge boost, our city council continues to beg or bully their government counterparts into submission. For all the Valeris, Boutriannis and provincial NDPers in parliament, the only "special treatment" we appear to be getting is more of the same - i.e. a whole lot of nothing.

  6. Look who's running the show. One aspect that seems to be curiously absent from any analysis to date is the qualifications of our municipal councilors.

    Our city is a billion dollar business, and a complicated one at that. The last time I attended a budget review meeting - over a year ago now - my councilors looked thoroughly confused by the analysis being presented to them. Their vague and uncomfortable questions appeared to confirm this.

    One councilor came up and spoke to me about the lack of financial training available. Our billion dollar diversified public companies are well served by highly qualified CEOs and COOs and a Board of Directors to boot. How can we expect our earnest and underpaid councilors to produce any meaningful budget analysis or business strategies, without giving them the fiscal management training they so clearly need?

  7. In the recent city council budget road show discussions and on-line polls, one theme came through loud and clear: no more taxes! It seems that, rather than get a handle on how we taxpayers want to appropriate our city spending, the most conclusive request we have made has been simply this - stop making us pay more. Given the current trends outlined here, this seems like wishful thinking.

  8. My apologies for this, but there really is no way to avoid that project! The fact is, loathe it or hate it, our number one capital project continues to drain our scarce resources at an alarming rate.

    When this project was pitched as part of the 2003 municipal election 'referendum' we were told that it was a $200 million dollar affair, for which the city would be billed only $80 million.

    The latest - scarcely believable - estimates record the current expenditures at $300 million and counting. Many of these costs appear to be buried in the balance sheets of numerous city departments, far from the prying eyes of the concerned citizen.

    As a result it seems that we are, as yet, unable to project accurately just how much this project is costing us, and how much more we will need to spend. Because of the lack of any comprehensive business case for the project, we have very little idea - and no guarantee - how much money the project will bring in, and how long it will take us to re-coup our costs.

  9. Despite Power Conferences and Mayor DiIanni's recently released ten point plan, the city still has no clear focus, no goal, no direction. While the talk is changing, and there are now at least audible whispers about investing in our quality of life and our downtown, the approach we are taking seems to be the same old, same old.

    In applying the successful city revitalization principle of building on your strengths, we have an embarrassment of riches - a huge potential. Yet this remains, for the most part, unrealized and untapped.

So what do we do now? Is our current approach working? Will Momma McGuinty and Papa Paul take pity on their petulant child? Will our endless nagging finally whittle them into submission? Or will they send us to our room with a stern warning and a sting in our tail?

Whatever they do I stand by my statement that our City has some growing up to do. Anyone who has ever had a post office account and a head full of dreams will know the necessity of taking stock, setting out a strategy, working hard, cutting back - and staying the course. These are the important lessons I take from my early morning escapades and have put to use in my adult life.

In fact, every one who has the daunting duty of managing the family budget every month will know the value of these things. Because, whether it's a miniature telly, last month's mortgage payment or a trip to Hawaii, those of us in the 'real world' know that you cannot have financial stability without financial responsibility. In growing up, we learn to understand that earning what we can, spending what we need, and saving for what we want is the only way to be responsible.

I am a reluctant grown up. Despite the playground fights, acne outbursts and endless household chores I would go back in a heart beat. But I haven't lost my dreams.

And it is in this that I feel Hamilton needs to be a child again. Because today, in Hamilton, all we seem to have are adult worries and grown up responsibilities. All we seem to do is struggle to pay the bills, and get through the day.

As a growing city we need to have dreams again. We need to think about what we want to be when we grow up. We need something to look forward to. We need to stop all this desperation, and start building some anticipation.

We need to feel young again.

And the only way we can do that is by growing up.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By Steeltown (registered) | Posted None at

What is Mayor DiIanni's ten point plan?

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted None at

Was highlighted in the Spec a few months back. Plenty of the 'same old' but some very forward thinking stuff about taking the buses out of Gore Park and the like. There were about 3 downtown focused ideas that he promised to pursue with council. I wish he'd get on with it...

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