If amalgamation is on the agenda as part of the Doug Ford’s ersatz review of regional government, provincial officials would have plenty to think about had they sat in last week on a Wellesley council meeting.
The local buzz has been overwhelmingly negative.
Full of questions and concerns but short on answers, township councillors spoke in turn about the regional government review and its implications.
Mayor Joe Nowak opened the floor to discussion to fellow Wellesley council members, who were resoundingly of one mind on any attempt made to fold the smaller townships into the neighbouring cities.
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“I think it’s going to be a mistake, and I would definitely not support it,” said Ward 2 Coun. Herb Neher, who gave a long list of concerns and problems that an amalgamated system of government would risk.
“Well I’ve got a few of them. Bigger is not always better, that’s been proven,” said Neher. “Usually they do not save money as they claim they’re going to save in the long run. Service is not going to be the same, because right now if somebody has a problem, I know in my ward we have excellent [service] – it can be resolved in 20 minutes, half-an-hour.”
Currently, the Region of Waterloo’s two-tier system splits service delivery between the two levels of government. The lower-tier municipalities, such as the Township of Wellesley, are responsible for managing local streets, operating recreation centres and staffing fire departments, while the Region of Waterloo oversees police, paramedic services, regional roads and housing services.
Under a single-tier system, these services would all be handled by a single government, potentially trading a uniformity of services and cost-savings at the risk of a reduced ability for local residents to decide their own priorities.
“And if anybody has ever dealt with the city, with a large municipality, they realize that you’re lucky if you get somebody out in a couple days or so. So people have to decide what kind of service do they want. I think that we provide an excellent service in the long run.”
Neher also pointed to the loss of effective representation that an amalgamated government would invariably bring. In such a system, the township council would no longer exist – instead being replaced by a single government with representatives from multiple townships and cities. In such a scenario, it would be easy to see the township’s interests eclipsed by the larger cities, he contended.
“I think we’re going to be forgotten. We have a uniqueness out here with the Mennonite community, the rural setting, the farms,” said Neher.
“That would be a concern of mine, that we’re dealing with people in the city that are making decisions for us out here. And expansion, and protecting our farm lands and protecting our farmers. I think that’s going to go down the tube somewhere along the line, because the money people are going to start saying they’re going to rationalize why they should put everything under cement.”
Fellow councillors were largely in agreement with Neher’s position, sharing many of the same concerns.
“I would just echo what Herb said. I don’t even know where to start,” said Ward 1 Coun. Shelley Wagner. “There are maybe some things that could be amalgamated in the cities. But I worry about them trying to amalgamate us here.”
“It’s just a way for them to get our taxes for the trains and the ION,” added Ward 4’s Carl Smit.
“We’ve escaped their clutches so far,” pointed out Neher.
Mayor Nowak also took issue with the province’s ambitious timeframe for the review, which will see 82 upper- and lower-tier municipalities in Ontario evaluated by summer.
“The review is supposed to be completed in June, July. I just don’t think it’s going to happen that quickly,” said Nowak. “I think if you’re going to do a review like this, you need more than six months to do it.”
Two special advisors have been appointed to the review: recently retired Region of Waterloo chair Ken Seiling and former deputy minister Michael Fenn. The review will have until the summer to answer some very broad questions about the 80 governments under their purview, including: “Are two-tier structures appropriate for all of these municipalities?” and “Does the distribution of councillors represent the residents well?”
“Well I think we’ve got a pretty good sense of where we all stand,” said Nowak, adding that more talks were likely to come. “We all stand strong.”
Nowak said he will be joining other Region of Waterloo mayors at Queen’s Park for an “advocacy day,” and planned to bring his councillors concerns to provincial lawmakers.