The Province ran a feature on the weekend, reporting that there is a “Big appetite for merging of cities in Metro Vancouver.”
A commanding majority of people in the region would like to see local municipalities merge, according to a new Angus Reid Institute poll. Seventy-four per cent of Metro adults are in favour of combining at least some local governments, the poll found.
The usual reason? Presumed savings.
“The common pros to amalgamation largely focus around economic and fiscal efficiencies,” says (Vancouver-based urban planner Andrew) Ramlo, who is executive director of research institute Urban Futures. “Two small municipalities would be able to take advantage of one common governance structure – mayor and council – and a common set of municipal staff.”
The reality? Not so much.
The Ontario provincial government held up the promise of cost savings from reduced bureaucracy for imposing amalgamation on the cities that now make up the Greater Toronto Area in 1998. But expected savings failed to materialize. Research shows that in 2010, Ontario had 20.9 municipal workers per thousand residents, up from 15.8 in 1990.
I’ll let Thomas weigh in with his usual insistence that public-sector workers’ salaries be cut, but the precedent seems to be that lower-paid staff actually see a rise in pay to equal whatever group is paid more among the amalgamated cities. Likewise the level of services. Few will vote to reduce their garbage pick-up or protection services to be equal with a less well-serviced neighbour. Instead, service levels rise, and savings from consolidation disappear.
But that’s not the real reason why amalgamation, though agreeable in theory, flounders when proposed in practice, unless imposed by a senior government. What does it really come down to?
Let’s test the proposal for consolidation in one of the places it might make the most sense: the North Shore. Let’s see what the good people of West Vancouver think about becoming a minority in a municipality dominated by their neighbours to the east. Or how about North Delta being included in a municipality made up predominantly of neighbourhoods in Surrey, notably Newton and Whalley. Or White Rock disappearing into South Surrey. Or Port Moody into Coquitlam.
As Benjamin Ross documents in Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, people willingly trade property rights (and even economic gain) for status. The function of zoning, and much of planning, is to maintain exclusivity – typically referred to as ‘community character.’ Even those who argue vociferously against excessive government regulation in the marketplace accept City Hall’s right to determine, down to the centimeter, what can be built on adjacent property and what can be done with it. In West Vancouver, for instance, no industry – though such uses would significantly alleviate the burden of property tax on residences.
So how likely is amalgamation to occur voluntarily if it requires a majority in each affected municipality, not just a majority of the combined population? Not going to happen – not even on the North Shore much less region wide, save for the few places where status might not be at stake.