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CATCH News – March 11, 2006

Another band-aid for city trees

City finance staff are again proposing to use their capital budget to pay for emergency maintenance of city trees, and again postponing funding of a regular tree trimming program that was approved nearly three years ago. Treasurer Joe Rinaldo told councillors this week that he is recommending “an additional $1.1 million to address the backlog on tree trimming so that we can get caught up completely as of December 31st, 2006.”

The measure is nearly identical to one announced in March of last year for the same purpose and nearly the same amount of money. At that time, councillors were told that a $1 million expenditure in 2005 would eliminate the backlog of 6900 outstanding resident requests for tree maintenance and then forestry staff could move in 2006 to a regular cycle that would trim city-owned trees in a grid pattern across the entire urban area at least once every five years.

The full-city five-year cycle was originally okayed in September 2003, just before the last municipal elections. But it has never been funded despite modifications that called for phasing in the spending and steadily reduced the first year and total commitments. As a consequence, grid trimming currently only occurs on the 75,000 trees within the old city of Hamilton and only on a 15-20 year cycle. The estimated 100,000 trees in the urban parts of the former suburbs are not included.

At Wednesday’s budget meeting, Sam Merulla asked how Rinaldo’s proposal will affect the long-standing objective of a five-year trim cycle advocated by the forestry division. .

“This does nothing to enhance it,” replied public works head Scott Stewart. “It’s not a five year cycle. We’re closer to twenty. It doesn’t do anything about bringing it down. It’s a short term fix.” He told the councillor that the grids trimming program is “one of those non-affordable things” in the department’s operating budget

Merulla suggested the city “could technically be allocating this money towards the grids program”, but Stewart explained that the $1.1 million is a one-time expenditure, not a permanent addition to the budget. This was emphasized by Mayor Di Ianni who pointed out: “This is a one time injection from capital. It doesn’t affect the [tax] levy. But it gets our backlog down to zero.”

Ironically, forestry had asked for only a $325,000 addition to its operating budget this year to begin a five-year phase-in of the recommended maintenance program. The fact that that is less than a third of the money being offered by Rinaldo underlines the difference between the capital and operating budgets. The former is one-time spending and can be borrowed if necessary. The latter, once approved, gets spent every year and must come out of annual taxes.

Municipalities are not permitted to borrow to pay for their operating costs. Allocating tree trimming to the capital budget continues an accounting innovation that began in 2004 when the planting of new trees along city streets was also deemed to be a capital expenditure.

A presentation of the details of this year’s tree trimming plan was postponed after time ran out at Wednesday’s budget meeting. The next budget session is scheduled for Monday March 27.

CATCH (Citizens at City Hall) updates use transcripts and/or public documents to highlight information about Hamilton civic affairs that is not generally available in the mass media. Detailed reports of City Hall meetings can be reviewed at www.hamiltoncatch.org. You can receive all CATCH free updates by sending an email to CATCH@cogeco.ca.
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