Amalgamation a bad idea that just won’t die off

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The votes were barely counted when there was talk – again – of amalgamation. That the municipal election happened during Halloween season appears to be no coincidence – amalgamation is the zombie that refuses to die. The walking dead, indeed.

Just like zombies, however, the benefits proponents tout – cost savings and efficiencies – are also totally fictional.

Amalgamation has been a non-starter for years. Whether protecting their turfs or fighting off the loss of independence, critics have been right to dismiss a concept whereby the seven existing municipalities in Waterloo Region would be wiped out in favour of one.

The case for consolidating seven municipal governments into one über-government at the region is as weak today as it was during the height of the Harris Tories’ ill-fated amalgamation frenzy. Removing direct local representation for a gamble on reduced costs hasn’t paid off, and never will. Moreover, people have ties to their communities, and like to have direct access to their municipal politicians, who have the largest impact on their day-to-day lives.

While optimizing some services may be advantageous – over the years, we’ve seen that happen with police services and, more recently, transit – but that’s a far cry from discussing single-tier government. Even talks to regionalize fire protection or water and sewer services seem doomed to eternal bickering.

In the townships, the loss of direct say over planning and other issues is too big a price to pay. An amalgamated region would see precious little rural representation at the table. As it now stands, Woolwich and Wellesley each have just one place on regional council, which doesn’t amount to much. But each remains autonomous for the most part, able to control its future at the local council level – in the absence of that structure, the priorities of the cities could quickly overwhelm each of the four rural townships.

The smallest municipalities must retain the right to say “no” when it comes to incursions from the city. The fate of the development lands in Breslau, for instance, is in much better hands at Woolwich council than it would be if the cities were calling the shots – just look at the poor development legacy visited on the residents of Kitchener and Waterloo.

Studies of Ontario municipalities amalgamated when that was in vogue with the Harris government show cost-savings to be non-existent. There may be benefits, but they’re not financial. And years afterwards, few people are doing cartwheels over the moves.

Business groups are often the ones pushing for amalgamations, typically emphasizing the savings mantra. Depending on the political climate, they’re joined by people who like the idea of sending politicians packing, the appeal of fewer councillors. Again, nice idea in theory, but the savings are miniscule – one-half of one per cent of the total budget goes to council administration.

While there can be a bit of initial cost savings by casting off duplicate senior staff members, it doesn’t take long before most of the money is eaten up by the middle managers who are added to help administer a larger population and the services offered to them.

That idea makes no sense for any of the municipalities, least of all the townships. But politicians are capable of acting contrary to the public interest. When it comes to the idea of amalgamation, we are living in the land of the undead.

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