Wynne to Merulla: Uploading has saved Hamilton millions

The premier’s office has countered a claim from a Hamilton councillor that Kathleen Wynne is “a liar” by saying that it’s “proud” of its record of supporting cities.
Premier Kathleen Wynne's office say the premier is proud of her record dealing with cities such as Hamilton, and that her government's uploading has saved local taxpayers $84.6 million this year. Coun. Sam Merulla disagrees. (Canadian Press)

The premier’s office has countered a claim from a Hamilton councillor that Kathleen Wynne is “a liar”  by saying that it’s “proud” of its record of supporting cities, and that the premier would like to spend more time in Hamilton.

Coun. Sam Merulla was referring to Wynne’s comment that municipalities have extra cash after the province uploaded some social services, saying at Wednesday's council meeting that she was either being dishonest or “wilfully stupid.”

Wynne’s office told CBC Hamilton on Thursday that the Liberals have been good to Hamilton property taxpayers.

“We’d like to remind Coun. Merulla of the ongoing support the Liberal government has provided to the City of Hamilton,” spokesperson Kelly Baker said in an email.

After years of services being downloaded to municipal taxpayers, the email read, Wynne’s government is uploading some of them — namely Ontario Works (OW), the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and the Ontario Drug Benefits Program (ODB).

“That will provide Hamilton with $84.6 million in benefits this year alone,” the email said. 

Wynne is open to discussing “the issues that matter to local communities,” Baker wrote, “and she looks forward to spending more time in the Hamilton region over the coming months.”

The figure cited by the province is a big difference from what city numbers show, said Merulla, who represents Ward 4. The discrepancy is "bizarre" and "remarkably disconcerting," he said.

"Frankly, if there's this much of a discrepancy, perhaps she should come into town," Merulla said. "I invite her to a round table discussion with city bureaucrats to reach some sort of understanding of why there’s such a discrepancy."

Since 2004, the email said, provincial assistance to Hamilton has increased by about 250 per cent, so the city can “reinvest property tax dollars in local projects like transit, infrastructure and affordable housing.”

Downloading has been an issue in the late 1990s, when the province downloaded services such as social assistance, land ambulance and social housing to municipalities. From 2008 to 2018, Ontario is uploading the cost of three of those services — OW, ODSP and ODB — back to the provincial level. But services such as ambulance and social housing remain on the local property tax bill.

Coun. Sam Merulla says the province needs to upload the remaining services downloaded in the 1990s - namely ambulance, social housing and social services - because they eat up one-fifth of property tax bills. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Uploading has also meant a loss of provincial grants to administer OW, ODSP and ODB, said finance head Mike Zegarac on Wednesday. So in reality, local taxpayers have only saved $11.8 million since 2009.

The province isn't doing the city justice unless it uploads provincially regulated services such as ambulance, social housing and the remainder of social service costs, Merulla said. Those cost Hamilton $120 million per year, or 20 per cent of the property tax bill.

"The fact is that 20 per cent of the city of Hamilton operating budget is due to provincial responsibilities," he said.

The city hopes to draw attention to this issue and others at a “Hamilton Day” at Queen’s Park in November. Council voted at Wednesday’s council meeting to hold Hamilton Day, the same conversation where Merulla made his remarks.

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