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Hamilton councillors save social service benefits – for now

By Kevin Werner • METROLAND WEST MEDIA GROUP

As social service proponents urged the city to save lives, Hamilton councillors have approved money to keep the city’s social service benefits operating for the first six months of next year.

“We tried to find a palliative solution in the short-term, with no tax increase,” said Flamborough councillor Judi Partridge, who introduced the motion. “These are hits to the core to any municipality, especially to Hamilton.”

The city has been forced to fund the 2013 discretionary benefits and Community Start-Up benefits programs because the province is cutting the funding starting next year. It will cost the city about $7.6 million annually.

The benefits affected included women’s shelter funding, homelessness programs, funerals, dental programs, adult day care spaces.

Last week, Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark proposed raising taxes by one per cent for one year to cover the cost of the programs. He acknowledged his other colleagues didn’t all agree to the idea. The motion presented at the Nov. 7 general issues committee proposed that if no other funding could be found, a tax increase would remain a possibility in the 2013 budget. During budget negotiations early next year, politicians are expected to debate how to find money to keep the programs in place for all of 2013.

“It really is a pragmatic compromise,” said Clark.

The social service programs will be funded from the community services’ department surplus, the tax stabilization reserve, which is near zero, and other city reserves.

“This is about investing in the human capital,” said Mountain councillor Terry Whitehead. “For the province of Ontario to abandon this municipality is more than unfortunate.”

Whitehead acknowledged that the six-month time frame should allow city officials to convince provincial officials to restore the funding. But seeking provincial help could also be hindered by a precarious political situation and the potential for an election this spring.

“This is just a stop-gap,” he said. “We may have to come back in another six months.”

Other provincial municipalities are facing the same financial crunch, said Joe-Anne Priel, general manager of emergency and community service.

“Some are trying to try to deal with it within their current budgets,” she said.

Politicians listened carefully as social activists urged the city to keep the money flowing to the programs.

Katherine Kalinowski, assistant executive director of programs for the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative, said without the programs, the city will see even more women clamoring for shelters, keep women in shelters, and higher costs.

“These are needed benefits,” she said.

Medora Uppal, co-chair for the Women Abuse Working Group, said the city’s women’s shelters are already at the breaking point, even with the benefits.

“Do the right thing today,” she told councillors. “Show courage.”

But Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson questioned why social activists don’t appeal to the province to stop the cuts.

“You are preaching to the choir,” said Ferguson. “There is a lot of stress on us. This council didn’t do this.”

Councillors also urged the city to improve its intergovernmental relations strategy so it could improve its relationship with the province. Some politicians said it’s time to establish a co-ordinated conversation with the province rather than see ad-hoc discussions between individual councillors and local MPPs.

“Clearly our strategy is broken,” said Councillor Chad Collins.

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