Local politicians will face some tough choices this week when they decide where to cut into critical programs that benefit Hamilton's poorest residents.

City councillors will vote Thursday morning on cuts to the city's discretionary benefits program, which provides services such as funerals, emergency dental surgery and eyeglasses for Hamiltonians on social assistance.

A staff report recommends drastically reducing the amount of dental coverage for people on Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. Currently, they are covered for an average of $533 for emergency dental surgery. The report suggests a cap of $260 per person.

The report also recommends reducing the utility arrears benefit, which could result in more residents living without power. Also in jeopardy is the affordable transit pass program, which offers half-price passes for people with low incomes.

These are not easy decisions, Coun. Brian McHattie said. But they were forced on the city by provincial cuts.

Funerals, glasses still covered

"We've been working so hard over the last five, six years through focused efforts of (Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction) and whole community," he said. "Then with one fell swoop of cut in programs, the province set us back to where we were five years ago."

The report will come to the emergency and community services meeting on Thursday morning. Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, said at least it doesn't recommend cuts to funerals, prosthetic devices, eyeglasses, psychiatric assessments and baby supplies.

But with the proposed cuts to dental service, "people who have much more than a cavity probably won't be covered," he said.

"These programs aren't just hallmarks of a just society. They're hallmarks of a civilized society," he said. "There's no excuse for us to not be able to provide dental services."

The province has capped the discretionary benefits program to $10 per social assistance case, resulting in a shortfall for the city of $1,816,727 in 2012 and $3,756,517 in 2013.

Other programs cut

These cuts come in the same year as cuts to the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit, which covers several programs that keep people housed. Those include:

  • the Consolidated Homelessness Prevention Program, which helps people get and stay in housing
  • the Domiciliary Hostel Program, which helps low-income people stay in residential care facilites
  • the Emergency Energy Fund, which gives grants for utility arrears emergency hostels for the homeless
  • the Provincial Rent Bank, which helps people get caught up on their rent

These Community Start Up programs currently cost $22,764,060. But the government has consolidated all of them into one funding envelope and is providing $15,014,060, for a shortfall of about $7.2 million. The city can fund some of it using the city's tax levy, but there is still a funding gap of about $3.5 million.

In his presentation Thursday morning, Cooper will encourage the city to use money from the tax stabilization reserve to offset cuts to the Community Start Up programs.

McHattie wants to do that too. It will buy the city another year, and in that year, the provincial government could change, he said.

"With that mindset, I'd like to see these programs funded one time to their full amount," McHattie said. "I think it's absolutely necessary."

The city initially planned to have a "Hamilton Day" at Queen's Park to draw media attention to the Community Start Up cuts. Then the province prorogued the legislature.

No more Hamilton Day

City officials are still meeting with provincial bureaucrats to argue reinstatement of the funding, said Coun. Sam Merulla.

The city was "deep into" planning Hamilton Day when the proroguing happened, he said.

Merulla agrees that the program has to be funded locally until a provincial election.

"We literally have to buy time and bridge the gap," he said. "But it's unaffordable for us to sustain it beyond a year."

Community Start Up cuts will be discussed on Dec. 10.

Thursday's meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. Watch it live at the city's website.