Crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford may have tainted the idea of megacity amalgamations

Crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford may have tainted the idea of megacity amalgamations

Megacity model called unlikely, risky

Metro Vancouver's 21 mayors and councils seem here to stay as Greater Victoria opens door to amalgamation

Taxpayers might save money if Metro Vancouver’s 21 separate municipalities – each with its own mayor, council and bureaucracy – could be merged into a single super city.

But observers say even that premise is far from certain in the unlikely event the idea of amalgamation ever gets serious traction in this region.

“I believe it could save money,” Canadian Taxpayers Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman said. “But you would have to hold a hard line on labour costs, which won’t be popular with the unions.”

He said the risk with amalgamation is that the most expensive tax rates and labour deals across the region prevail rather than the cheapest ones, triggering tax hikes instead of cuts.

That’s a key downside of shifting to a megacity model like Toronto or Montreal.

“The big problem is you lose tax competitiveness,” Bateman said. “As bad as our property taxes are, it’s helpful to taxpayers when Port Coquitlam, for example, feels like they’re competing with Port Moody and Coquitlam for residents and businesses.”

Bateman said it would be smarter to pursue piecemeal mergers of nearby communities in the region where it makes sense to do so.

Langley Township and Langley City should be able to join forces, he argues, and perhaps North Vancouver City and District.

SFU political science professor Patrick Smith agrees sub-regional amalgamation is more viable, with Lions Bay and Bowen Island perhaps joining West Vancouver, or Belcarra and Anmore joining Port Moody or Coquitlam.

Megacity amalagamations have generally failed to deliver on promised savings, he added.

And while it might be popular to purge many of the politicians who currently prowl the region for votes – Ontario Premier Mike Harris dubbed his 1996 municipal amalgamation legislation the “Fewer Politicians Act” – Smith said many residents prefer a smaller local government that’s more responsive to their wishes.

Delta, with its no-call-too-small-policing, has fiercely opposed any talk of a move to a regional police force, which would be a less dramatic step than full municipal amalgamation.

“I don’t think there’s any inclination on the part of the participants to go there,” Smith said.

And if Metro municipalities don’t volunteer it’s unlikely the provincial government would ever force them together.

Former Premier Gordon Campbell entrenched a promise the province would never forcibly amalgamate cities when he created the Community Charter.

Other problems would plague a serious push for amalgamation as well – such as deciding where to draw borders.

“If the province said ‘Let’s fix the region’ what’s the region you’re trying to fix?” Smith asked. “Does it include Abbotsford? Does it include Chilliwack? The Gulf Islands?”

Then there’s the optics of having one mayor rule an entire region, which was problematic even before Toronto mayor Rob Ford confessed to smoking crack.

A green-minded mayor from Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood might grate in Langley, while a Ford-style suburban conservative would be unpalatable to downtown urbanites.

Wards would be have to be created to preserve representation for smaller cities or else the megacity would be dominated by politicians from populous Vancouver and Surrey.

Instead, Smith says the federated model of municipalities working together within the Metro Vancouver regional district to jointly deliver utilities like water and sewage has generally worked well.

Regional districts in the Lower Mainland flowed out of the massive flood of 1948 and Smith predicts it would take some similar catastrophe to topple the current structure and move to a megacity.

“You’d need a crisis of some sort, it could be a flood or an earthquake,” he said.

“But we’ve had that kind of crisis in social terms with the missing women and nothing’s happened,” he said, referring to the discarded recommendation of regional policing reform.

Greater Victoria, with its similar patchwork of municipalities, seems more fertile ground after voters in several communities there on Saturday approved a non-binding referendum question to explore amalgamation.

Community Minister Coralee Oakes said Monday the province will conduct a governance study.

“It’s going to be complex, it’s going to be very difficult, but we’re committed to do doing that,” she said. “We should be looking at integrated services. We should be looking at are we being efficient with our taxpayer money.”

Oakes said after referendum questions in Victoria, Saanich and other Vancouver Island municipalities showed strong support, communities that didn’t have amalgamation on the ballot have also indicated they are interested in participating in the study.

– with files from Tom Fletcher

 

EASIER REFORMS:

There may be ways to make municipal services more efficient or to improve local democracy without full amalgamation. Here are two ideas:

  • Jordan Bateman says neighbouring cities could try negotiating agreements to share services, such as fire departments or parks and recreation operations.
  • Patrick Smith says some of Metro Vancouver’s regional district directors could be directly elected, instead of being the current process where they must first win election as a mayor or councillor and then be chosen by their council to go to the regional board.