The amalgamation of cities

"Implementing reclaimed material along the banks of the woonasquatucket river." Lifted from

“Implementing reclaimed material along the banks of the woonasquatucket river.” Lifted from

Some of the most critical problems in B.C. urban life can be linked to our multi-municipality system of regional government. The lack of a sustainable funding formula for public transit in Metro Vancouver, for example, can be blamed in part on years of dithering by mayors. Our local housing and homelessness policies are a mish-mash, with some municipalities clearly offloading social problems onto others.

In Ontario, a “common sense” provincial government took the drastic step of eliminating many mayors and councils in the late 1990s. The most populous region, Toronto, imploded from six cities into a single mega-city. In Ottawa, 11 municipalities merged into one. Across Ontario, 229 municipalities, or more than a quarter of the total, were wiped from the map to achieve cost savings and more efficient decision-making.

A recent report sponsored by the Fraser Institute, a right-leaning think tank based in Vancouver, proposes a different approach to decision-making gridlock. It suggests that B.C.’s provincial government should facilitate voluntary regional or sub-regional agreements on key issues, offering financial support to the municipalities that want to play a constructive role.

The report is linked to developments in Greater Victoria, B.C.’s second-biggest urban region, where there are 13 municipalities serving fewer than 400,000 people. In the 2014 election, voters in several municipalities approved the idea of exploring closer ties. A group called Amalgamation Yes! has sprung up to idea that cities should amalgamate.  A consultant’s report on “the integration of services and governance,” commissioned by the B.C. government, is to be complete in October 2016.

The Fraser Institute report looks at how experiments in amalgamation have fared in other parts of Canada; and in 64 pages of text, professor emeritus Robert Bish and associates conclude that the cure is generally worse than the disease. For starters, they argue, the promised cost savings have never materialized — not in Ontario, or in Quebec, New Brunswick or Nova Scotia.

“The most striking aspect of these impositions is the wide disparity between what the provincial government predicted would occur and actual results. In each case, significant cost savings were predicted and in no case that has been studied did such savings result.

In the case of Montreal, the amalgamation also contributed significantly to the defeat of the PQ government in the following provincial election and, even with the de-amalgamation of 14 municipalities, it looks like the end result of the entire effort for Greater Montreal is an increase in costs after four years of $473 million ($278 million after inflation) instead of the promised $175 million savings.

…In amalgamations, provincial ministers and staff have no responsibility for the failures so there is no particular incentive for them to make accurate forecasts. It is the local people who end up bearing the costs, not the provincial officials.”

In a fragmented system, the Bish team suggests that — in Victoria at least — small municipalities work  diligently to find low-cost solutions, with 35 per cent of all services contracted out, and “all major services with economies of scale…provided by one of the two largest municipalities or on a regional or subregional basis.”

The real pay-off from B.C.’s current system, the report suggests, is that smaller governments are better able to address the priorities that matter to local populations.

“Within British Columbia there is now nearly 50 years of experience with the regional district system. Its bottom-up and voluntary approach fits well into a West Coast culture of allowing citizens to take the initiative to form their municipalities and enter into voluntary agreements with other municipalities for mutual benefits. The result has been flexibility based on high levels of democratic participation in diverse communities… The replacement of this system with larger bureaucracies where local decisions are made by bureaucrats instead of locally elected officials would be a major change in the political culture of Greater Victoria and would be out of place where more adaptability is likely to be needed in the future.”

In other words, the Bish team advocates for the status quo, with some refinements. This brings us back to the problem mentioned at the top of this post: that on key regional issues such as transit and housing, our numerous mayors and councils do not always play well together, at least in Greater Vancouver. Bish does respond in detail, but me offers a general recommendation that the provincial government should offer financial incentives, funding voluntary regional service agreements based on who wants to pay and play by the rules. The non-participants would presumably settle for a lower level of service, or no service. For an existing example, we can look to the Phoenix-area transit system, where participating state-funded municipalities (Tempe, Phoenix) are growing a rapid transit system, while the dropouts (Scottsdale) see only scattered and infrequent bus service. There are losers, such as low-income workers in Scottsdale (retail clerks, cleaners) who would like to rely on frequent transit; and winners, such as transit users in Tempe and Phoenix.

So: for Metro Vancouver, amalgamation or not? Fraseropolis world headquarters is currently located 15 minutes on foot from the Maple Ridge City Hall. In an Ontario-style collapse of the region, City Hall would move to either Cambie and Broadway in Vancouver (75 minutes by car in peak traffic, or 2 hours by transit) or to Metrotown in Burnaby (50 minutes by car in peak, 75 minutes by transit.) For fringe-dwellers like me, the proposition seems ridiculous. A super-government would have much reduced volunteer support, less citizen input, and less citizen oversight.

A compromise, then. Maybe some limited amalgamation. Based on voluntary agreements, supported by a majority in each participating municipality, not imposed by the Province. It happened in the creation of the Fraser Valley City of Abbotsford, where the Village of Abbotsford joined with the District of Sumas in the 1970s, and then the District of Abbotsford with the District of Matsqui in the 1990s, after a referendum. The positive nature of the Abbotsford change is highlighted on Victoria’s Amalgamation Yes website. I can’s see where this is likely to happen again the the Lower Mainland, but who knows? In any case, such local mergers will not help much in the achievement of effective regional programs.

On May 29, 2016, residents in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, voted in a referendum on the proposed amalgamation of four out of six towns in the county, with a total population of under 40,000. The Province offered to grease the merger with a promise of an additional $27 million in funding over five years, but the voters said no by a margin of two to one.





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