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Wednesday, January 22, 2020
Connecting Our Communities

Province makes right call in ditching amalgamation scheme

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Somebody must have talked Doug Ford off the ledge, as the regional government review he launched earlier this year finds us right back where we started: the province won’t force amalgamation on any of the municipalities.

That was something of a surprise for those of us who thought the scheme was a foregone conclusion, either as cover for the premier’s attempts to kneecap former PC leader Patrick Brown – Ford blocked an election in Peel Region, where Brown was poised to run for the chair’s position, for instance – or as an exercise in ill-informed ideology.

That same kind of ideology won the day during the previous Conservative government of Mike Harris, ending badly in each case where it was tried.

In Waterloo Region, the idea continues to surface on a regular basis, usually at the behest of some business group or other sticking with the ideological approach, no matter how much proof debunking claims of cost-savings and efficiencies. And we can probably count on the idea rising from the grave yet again. Should the zombie return, local politicians should keep in mind that gust because a small group of people is intent on raising the issue, there’s no reason for municipalities to pay them any heed.

That’s true whether the advocates are doing it for their own financial gain, adhering to ideological fallacies, or armed with good intentions but no useful grasp of the facts.

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 against consolidating seven municipal governments into one über-government at the region is as weak today as it was during the height of the 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.

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.

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.

Even with the much more expensive bureaucrats – an area of cost-savings worth exploring by each municipality – the ball has been dropped. 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 to be eaten up by the middle managers who are added to help administer a larger population and the services offered to them.

When it comes to the idea of amalgamation, putting it to rest permanently would be the wisest course of action.

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