Councillor's detective work to save Hamilton $3 million
Savings come from 'money sitting around,' says Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins
His colleagues on council called him a “forensic accountant,” whose keen eye and “detective-like work” have resulted in $3 million in savings for taxpayers.
On Friday, Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins presented a laundry list of 19 line items from the city’s capital budget that could be scratched in favour of reducing the expected tax increase for 2014.
The city’s general issues committee approved 12 of those suggestions — representing an estimated $3.32 million — and voted to use the savings against any property tax increase ratepayers may face next year.
The fact that we have this money sitting around… speaks volumes to how we need to improve the budget process.—Coun. Chad Collins
The bulk of the savings come not from permanently axing or paring back programs. Rather Collins argued against pouring more dollars into projects that still have large sums of money left over from previous budget cycles.
“There’s 137 projects representing $15 million worth of work where, we, as an organization, haven’t pulled a dollar out of those accounts,” said Collins of what he discovered while scouring the city’s books.
“The fact that we have this money sitting around… speaks volumes to how we need to improve the budget process.”
The savings include, for example, $500,000 for building assessments for social housing. Upon contacting city staff, Collins said, he found that the program receives funding from a reserve dedicated to public housing projects.
He also identified $1.2 million in leftover money from the city’s green cart program, which derives funding from several sources.
Staff predict 2.3 per cent tax increase in 2014
To fund the city’s operations for 2014, the city has to come up with 2.8 per cent more revenue than it’s expected to have taken in this year. Staff told councillors that the more than $3 million in savings they have approved bring that number down to 2.3 per cent.
Unless the city comes up with additional savings, the average homeowner in Hamilton will face a property tax increase of $69 in 2014, said Mike Zegarac, the city’s director of financial planning/policy.
Councillors lauded Collins for his work on the capital budget.
Brad Clark, who represents Ward 9, said a journalist had remarked to him about the level of detail in Collins’s accounting work.
“I said, ‘You do this every year,’ Clark told the committee, recalling his discussion with the reporter. “Councillor Collins is an excellent number-cruncher.”
Criticism lobbied at plans
But the changes weren’t without their critics.
Justin Jones, co-organizer of Yes We Cannon — the group that successfully lobbied the city to look into the installation of two-way bike lanes on Cannon Street — said he’s worried that a $100,000 cut to the city’s bike infrastructure budget will thwart future cycling initiatives in Hamilton.
Collins had said that the cut was justified because much of the $300,000 from the capital budget that’s devoted to bike lanes on a yearly basis isn’t getting spent, and because some of the funding for cycling projects comes from other places.
However, Jones complained that councillors sometimes veto bike lane projects that have already been designed by staff, creating surplus funding from projects that were planned in full, but never implemented.
“I think when funding is not being spent year over year, in my mind, it’s part of bigger problem,” he said. “Whenever it’s a bike lane project, it’s a fight.”
Jones said he’s not opposed in principle to a one-year reduction in funding for bike lanes, but noted he’s concerned that the cut will become permanent.
“We all know how much harder it is for them to say ‘Yes’ to new money than it is to say ‘Yes’ to a tax cut.”