Let us out of the Niagara conservation authority: Hamilton councillors

Hamilton city councillors want to redraw boundaries so none of the city is part of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. It's in a dispute over money with the authority, and even called for the province to take temporary control of it.

City councillors want to redraw boundaries so none of the city is part of the NPCA

Protesters gathered outside a Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) meeting earlier this month. Hamilton city councillors will debate next month whether to ask the province to redraw boundaries so it can pull out of the NPCA altogether. (CBC)

After two years of battles between Hamilton and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA), city councillors want to look at redrawing boundaries so they can pull out of the authority altogether.

The timing is perfect to have this kind of discussion.- Tom Jackson, Ward 6 councillor

Several city councillors say it makes more sense for the Binbrook area, currently part of NPCA, to fall under the Hamilton Conservation Authority (HCA). They'll formally debate the idea next month.

The problem is that conservation area boundaries are drawn according to watersheds — which rivers an area drains into — not political lines. 

HCA's area can be enlarged through "a meeting called by a municipality that is completely or partly outside of a conservation authority and wants to bring in new area into the authority," the Ministry of Natural Resources says.

Now the majority of councillors want to look at it.

"The timing is perfect to have this kind of discussion," said Tom Jackson, Ward 6 councillor, who will bring the motion to a February general issues committee meeting with Coun. Brenda Johnson of Ward 11.

We can always have conversations. We are a listening authority.- Sandy Annunziata, chair, NPCA

The city and NPCA have been at odds since 2015, when Carmen D'Angelo, a Hamilton rep on the NPCA board member who became the authority's CAO, said the NPCA needed $945,000 more per year from local taxpayers. That brings the levy from $513,473 per year to $1.2 million.

Paying 'under protest'

The city paid the new amount last year "under protest," said finance head Mike Zegarac. And it appealed the levy to the provincial Lands and Mines Commissioner. The city hopes for a hearing date this spring.

Meanwhile, Hamilton joined several Niagara municipalities in asking the NPCA to do a forensic audit. The city even took it a step farther by asking the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to assume temporary management.

The NPCA voted this month to order a third-party audit.

New chair Sandy Annunziata, a Fort Erie member on Niagara regional council, was at a Hamilton general issues committee meeting Tuesday to present a budget ask that increased 1.8 per cent over last year. When questioned by media, he said he was there to discuss the budget, not a future audit.

"We have done our best to generate external revenues so we don't always have to go back to the taxpayer," he said. "We have a higher volunteer base than we've ever had before."

"I'm hoping that language is captured within any article that's written that ultimately talks about audits or talks about secession from the Niagara watershed."

Boundaries have changed before

As for the possible secession, "we can always have conversations," he said. "We are a listening authority. We're not so heavy handed that we're going to tell our partners what conversation they can and cannot have."

It wouldn't be the first time conservation authority boundaries have changed in Hamilton. In the late 1960s, the Spencer Creek Conservation Authority expanded to take in more of Hamilton, said Chris Firth-Eagland, HCA CAO.

Jackson doesn't see the move as a long-term solution to a short-term problem. The city has a long-standing good relationship with HCA.

The current dispute brought the issue to a head, Jackson said.

It's "time to have an open and honest conversation about the possibilities of it."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC