Conclusions of citizens' forum presents City Council and Mayor Bratina with an opportunity to heal the community by resolving a difficult issue.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published February 27, 2011
The Citizens' Forum on Area Rating of Property Tax, a committee formed to examine the City's practice of levying different tax rates according to the degree of service various wards receive, will present their report on Monday evening.
The committee is composed of 20 citizens that were selected from a random sample of Hamiltonians. It includes one citizen per ward, plus five members who represent a cluster of wards.
Given this ward-based representation, you might expect the committee to behave much like City Council, which is also ward-based with the exception of the mayor. That is, you might expect it to be divided, politicized and focused on narrow ward-based interests instead of broader city-wide objectives.
Instead, it appears that the committee may have risen above pettiness and bickering to craft a principled, wise and fair solution.
According to the Spectator, the committee will recommend mostly eliminating area rating in suburban areas in favour of a simpler split between rural and urban areas.
Fire services would be rated in three ways based on the presence of hydrants and professional or volunteer fire stations. Culture and recreation would be paid for equally by all city residents. Transit's costs would be born equally by urban residents, with rural residents exempted; sidewalks and street lights would be split along urban and rural lines according to the degree they are present.
Because the plan would see taxes rise in suburban areas by as much as 5 to 7 percent, councillors from those areas are already expressing opposition to the committee's recommendations. Ancaster's Lloyd Ferguson is predicting a "mutiny", while Dundas' Russ Powers says, "My residents aren't up to that and I'm not up to that."
The stage is set for another clash between suburban and urban councillors. However, conflict is not necessary. Consensus is possible.
Consider the current system of area rating:
Public transit, recreation, fire protection, sidewalks and street lights are all public goods, things that benefit the public whether or not one uses them personally. We all benefit from having reduced traffic congestion and pollution as a result of public transit; from having healthy citizens because they can exercise at rec centres; from protecting our neighbours from dangerous fires even if one's own house never goes up in flames; from having signals at intersections to prevent collisions.
Both city staff and the citizens' forum appear to have concluded that these are all good reasons to institute a fairer, more sensible system of taxation. The Spec reported that 'Committee member Alex Lolua said establishing clear evaluation criteria was the foundation for coming up with "principled and fair" recommendations. He said much of the "bickering" around area rating is based on emotion, politics and a deep resentment about amalgamation.'
There's a powerful emotional component to the committee's conclusions as well. Reading through the Focus Group Results (PDF), I was struck by the repeated references to community healing as a possible and desired outcome of the process. Participants in these focus groups, which were held across the city, repeatedly referred to a fair and just conclusion as an important way to reduce anger over deamalgamation, build a sense of common purpose, and heal divisions.
The citizens' forum is randomly selected, demographically diverse, and drawn from every one of Hamilton's wards. They've taken the time to consult with the public, hear from city staff, and deliberate - very likely agonize - over the difficult decision in front of them.
Their conclusions, then, are the result of getting educated about the situation and thinking hard about it.
The focus groups they consulted are correct that Hamilton needs to heal its divisions and move forward together. Given that this issue presents the opportunity for healing a substantial divide between urban, suburban, and rural residents, and given that it appears that all one must do to convince reasonable people that area rating must be reformed or eliminated is educate them on the merits and the fairness of doing so, this represents a golden opportunity for Mayor Bratina and City Council.
City Council can demonstrate that they're able to make principled decisions that are based on city-wide objectives. Mayor Bratina can demonstrate that he's able to build consensus among members of an often fractious council; moreover, he can use his strong communications skills and the rapport he built with suburban Hamiltonians as a radio personality to educate and inform them.
Bratina, who voted to form the committee, responded to critics of its formation by emphasizing the importance and democratic role of citizen's groups, neighbourhood associations and community councils. Although I believe that this was a decision City Council should have had the courage to make on its own, being able to tell Hamiltonians that the decision was made democratically, by ordinary citizens from all wards, makes it more palatable for the people who will be most affected by it.
Taking the committee's conclusions seriously is also important from the perspective of valuing citizen engagement in the democratic process, not to mention ensuring that the $95,000 budgeted for managing the process isn't wasted.