Amalgamating Metro’s municipalities

Early in my career as a news reporter I covered local council meetings in Greater Ottawa — travelling to such high spots as the City of Nepean, the City of Gloucester, and the City of Kanata.  The new Ontario Conservative government of the 1990s moved with haste to abolish these jurisdictions and dozens of others, creating unified megacities in Ottawa, Toronto and elsewhere.

The justification in Ontario was that larger government units are less costly and better at making decisions.  This same argument is occasionally heard in Fraseropolis (there is an ongoing back-and-forth on SkyscraperPage). But British Columbia has never elected a megacitifying provincial regime, and the regional district of Metro Vancouver still takes in a bewildering variety of cities, towns and villages. 

There are certainly problems with the current arrangement, especially with the perception that Metro duties are an afterthought for the municipal politicians who are delegated to steer the regional authority.  However, I am opposed to a full amalgamation.  A Megacity Hall would be geographically and mentally remote from my community.  A megacity government would lose the volunteer energy and sense of personal attachment and responsibility that (at the best of times) drive decisions and public celebrations in my community.

The expert view seems to be that forced municipal amalgamation increases costs, rather than decreasing them.  Professor Robert L. Bish of Victoria, in a 2001 report for the CD Howe Institute, said “smaller and more flexible jurisdictions can often deliver services to residents at lower cost.”  Brian Crowley of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies made the same point, emphatically, in a presentation to Alberta municipal leaders in 2009, asserting that amalgamation is a cost driver.

As a half-way house, some suggest partial amalgamation, where the two Langleys, the North Shore or the Tri-Cities could be brought together.  The arguments here seem to be one, cost savings, and two, that the new bigger cities would have more clout at the regional table.  To the first argument: where smaller jurisdictions find the cost of services to be onerous, they can share the load with their neighbours; Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, for example, share the cost of policing, parks and tourism promotion, but remain autonomous in the all-important area of development control.  To the second: can anyone quantify “clout” at Metro Vancouver?  (The City of Abbotsford is a notable case of local amalgamation in Fraseropolis – I’ll check it out for a future post.)

If larger units of local government create economies of scale, one might expect to see taxpayers in Surrey enjoying a bargain with regard to property taxes compared with Pitt Meadows or the City of Langley, but the Government of BC’s chart on property taxes for “representative” homes in each municipality shows this is not so.

The threat of amalgamation may be a useful tool for provincial government in persuading municipalities to work together at the regional level.  I suppose this threat could also be used as a way of coercing municipalities to accept a provincial policy change or megaproject.

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