Hamilton councillors defer low income benefits decision

Hamilton councillors have deferred a decision that could impact the dental care, low-cost transit pass program and other benefits for people with low incomes.

Hamilton councillors have deferred a decision that could impact the dental care, low-cost transit pass program and other benefits for people with low incomes.

The city’s emergency and community services committee voted Thursday morning to defer these issues – known as discretionary benefits – to a special meeting on Nov. 7.

Committee members want more information, but "this issue is far too important to be tied up in administrative details," said Coun. Brian McHattie.  For this reason, there will be a special council meeting before the issue is tackled at the general issues committee next Thursday.

The cuts to discretionary benefits are the result of provincial downloading that happened in September, Coun. Judi Partridge said. Provincial cuts also impact the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit, which keep people from homelessness through efforts such as a rent bank and an emergency utility arrears program.

The Community Start Up report will come to committee on Nov. 7 too so councillors can look at the whole picture, McHattie said. The three-hour meeting dealt with a variety of services provided to social assistance recipients and the working poor. Among them was available funding for funerals, which staff hope to maintain by reinvesting municipal money. The staff report also recommends keeping money for eyeglasses and prosthetics.

On the chopping block are providing layettes, air conditioners, adult day programs and residential care facility transportation. It recommends a reduced utility arrears program and a drastically reduced transit pass program that would see many on Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program without access to a low-cost transit pass, including many of those currently looking for jobs.

Council initially planned to call attention to homelessness cuts with a high-profile "Hamilton Day" at Queen’s Park. But with the legislature prorogued, that can’t happen.

Monique Taylor, NDP MPP representing Hamilton Mountain, attended part of the meeting. She called the decisions the committee is facing "disgraceful."

"They can’t even lobby the government so they’re left hanging in the water with nowhere to turn," Taylor said.

If Hamilton kept the status quo with its discretionary benefits program, it would result in a $3.7-million shortfall in 2013. The Community Start Up cuts would cost $4.3 million.

Some have floated the idea of paying for the programs in the short term through the tax stabilization reserve. But at this rate, that reserve could be empty by the end of next year, said Rob Rossini, general manager of finance and corporate services.  

"We’re running out of money here to keep funding these things and not have an impact on property taxes," he said.  

To fully fund both programs, it would be a 1 per cent tax increase for Hamilton homeowners.  

Deirdre Pike from Hamilton Organizing for Poverty Elimination, one of seven delegations at the meeting, said maybe it’s time to consider that.  

"I’m willing to freeze my salary…because I don’t want to see people without access to these basic programs," she said. "I have discretionary benefits and so do middle class people. That’s what this is about."