An eastern Ontario city is mulling the idea of scrapping discounts on municipal programs and services for seniors and youth in order to boost supports for low-income residents of any age.
The City of Kingston says that while it already has a Municipal Fee Assistance program for those in need, the approach it's considering would raise the qualification threshold so more people could access the savings.
Seniors and youth are currently offered age-based discounts at recreational and cultural facilities such as theatres and museums as well as city transit.
The city has set up an online survey to seek input from residents on the idea.
For those 'in greatest financial need regardless of age'
Kingston has had an income-based system, in addition to the age-based discounts, in effect for about seven years.
Cheryl Hitchen, the city's manager of social policy, says the proposed program has potential to help more people living in poverty regardless of age.
"This is primarily about increasing access to our services to adults who are living in poverty, including those who may be working part time and in low-paying jobs," she said in a statement posted on the city's website. "The discounts would go to those in the greatest financial need regardless of age."
For example, Hitchen said in an interview that the current cutoff for a single person is about $17,000 and the proposal would raise that to about $22,000.
Across all ages the feedback has been mixed.
"I don't think anyone would argue that an individual earning $22,000 is probably not struggling," she said.
The proposed change would make about 6,000 more people from all age groups eligible for income-based discounts, Hitchen said, noting that the city's numbers suggest the change would be revenue neutral.
Currently, people seeking the means-based discounts must prove their income level and are issued a card they can use to get discounts on municipal services such as transit.
The results of the survey and focus groups will be tabulated after the consultation period ends in the middle of December and a proposal is expected to go to city council early next year, Hitchen said.
"Across all ages the feedback has been mixed," she said.
Other cities implementing income-based discounts
The idea of moving to an income-based system isn't new and Hitchen said Kingston looked to other jurisdictions in its effort to have discounts reach those most in need.
She cited London Transit which is dropping its seniors' discount and implementing an income-related bus pass discount program for all ages on Jan. 1.
Municipalities have been discussing the financial stresses of discounts for the baby boom generation for a few years, Hitchen said, noting that the discounts for seniors originated after the Second World War "when there were a significant number of seniors living in poverty."
"Now that we face the baby boomers ... it's time to take a look and say 'does this make sense from a policy perspective any more,'" she said.
"We have a significant number of seniors who are well above the overall median income and some would argue they can afford to pay the full price of a recreation program or to ride the bus and that that money should be used for those who can't," Hitchen said.
"It's a change and it's hard to take things away from people who've had it for a while," she acknowledged.
— With files from Michelle McQuigge
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