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Hamilton councillors divided over loan program

By Kevin Werner
METROLAND WEST MEDIA GROUP

Suburban and urban Hamilton councillors found themselves divided over what some politicians said was a politically-driven process to fast-track money for about six development projects in the downtown.

For the second time in two days, councillors were mired in a heated debate about whether to pre-approve $400,000 in interest costs for the loan program for downtown multi-residential buildings. The program offers zero per cent interest loans for 25 per cent of the construction costs.

Robert Rossini, corporate finance general manager, said it has created an additional $1.6 million in annual tax revenues for the city. But with developers taking advantage of the program, there are about six projects waiting to tap into the loans and not enough money in reserves to cover the costs, said staff.

“This has been a very successful program,” said Rossini.

Neil Everson, director of economic development and real estate for the city, said one potential application worth $4.5 million could be filed within a week. He also said four other applications could be submitted in January and February. Two of the projects are the Royal Connaught redevelopment and the Vrancor condominium project at the corner of Bay and King streets.

The Vrancor project already received $9 million from the city in a loan this past summer. Options for Homes, a project at the corner of Queen and King streets, is expected to apply for the program.

Councillors originally agreed to add the $400,000 cost to the 2013 budget talks, expected to begin in February. But downtown politicians said that could be too late since the councillors approve the budget in March or April. They said the money can be pre-approved now, a move that would allow the developers to begin the building process early next year.

“This is one of the most successful programs,” said Ward 5 councillor Chad Collins, who backed the program in the 9-7 vote.  “We need to find creative ways to open investment up.”

Ward 1 councillor Brian McHattie, who introduced the motion at the Nov. 28 council meeting, said potential projects are waiting for the money.

Added Ward 2 councillor Jason Farr, “It just makes sense to proceed further.”

But Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark said he has received conflicting information from staff during the council debate, prompting him to accuse city staff of providing politically motivated information to get the program approved.

With Mayor Bob Bratina seeking a zero per cent tax increase and the Hamilton Police Services proposing a 5.2 per cent increase to its budget, councillors will find it difficult to meet that target, he said. Bratina supported McHattie’s motion.

Even with a $200,000 compromise for the program, proposed by Dundas councillor Russ Powers, suburban councillors remained adamant they wouldn’t support the motion.

“I stand by the process,” said Stoney Creek councillor Maria Pearson. “This is not fair to taxpayers.”

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