A lobbyist registry sounds good, but one city councillor says it all comes down to value for the money.

Coun. Lloyd Ferguson says if a proposal for a mandatory city-run registry goes to council later this year, it will likely hinge on the cost to taxpayers versus the amount of good a registry that tracks when councillors meet with lobbyists would do.

The accountability and transparency subcommittee, which he chairs, asked city staff Tuesday for an estimate of how much a registry would cost Hamilton taxpayers.

Ferguson wants to make sure the city won't pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a registry to respond to what he says amounts to a handful of baseless complaints. He expects his fellow councillors would ask the same question.

"Is it really worth $200,000 to give the public comfort through a lobbyist registry, or would it be better to put it into social services or sidewalks?" he said.

Hamilton's integrity commissioner, Earl Basse, receives a $1,500 monthly retainer, plus a fee for each investigation. The city budgets $50,000 per year for his services.

All but one of the claims he has investigated to date have turned out to be baseless or vexatious, Ferguson said. He wants to make sure a lobbyist registry wouldn't be abused.

The registry would increase public confidence, he said. But it's a matter of weighing it against other demands.

Toronto pays more than $1 million

Coun. Judi Partridge, who also sits on the subcommittee, doubts the cost would deter her from wanting a registry.

She said she would vote in favour unless it cost millions to run, in which case "we'd need to take a prudent look at that."

Staff presented the cost of two other registries in Ontario — Toronto and Ottawa — on Tuesday. Toronto plans to spend $1,065,400 in 2013 for a registry that employs the full-time equivalent of 8.25 staff. 

'We need to start putting big check marks next to things.'— Coun. Judi Partridge

Ottawa just started its registry in the fall and spent $190,000 for the months it was operating in 2012. It pays its lobbyist registrar an annual retainer of $25,000 and $200 hourly to a daily maximum of $1,000 the report said.

Staff will come back to the subcommittee with an estimated cost to deal with the registry in-house, the cost of having an external party do it (possibly combined with the integrity commissioner role), and a hybrid of the two approaches. The report is scheduled for May.

Would take effect next year

Tuesday's report included a draft timeline that would see the bylaw take effect in January 2014.

Partridge is anxious to see it move forward. The issue has dragged on for years, she said, and she expected to see progress when she was elected in 2010.

"I really expected to have it nailed by the end of 2012," she said.

"We have to get rid of the barriers and get this moving. We've got some momentum going. We can't let the momentum stop."

Next year is a municipal election year, she said, and "we need to start putting big check marks next to things."