April 14, 2015

A Sincere Test for Amalgamation

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.

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  1. The case for amalgamation is not Toronto but Auckland, and the reason is not cost-savings but the ability to make decisions and act on them. All of Metro Auckland is now one city with one transportation division. It was incredibly traumatic, but there’s now an electable government with the power to actually do things.

    The “super city” of Auckland also now has a more productive relationship with national gov’t in Wellington, analogous to your provincial gov’t in Victoria. Central gov’t is no longer drawn into every inter-municipal issue in the urban region. Instead it has a narrower role dealing with investments and policies of national interest. There’s still plenty of conflict given that the current NZ national gov’t is conservative, but the conflict is clearer because the roles are more clearly drawn.

    There are certainly downsides in terms of the loss of a central-city municipality that can be more progressive, but the outcome in Auckland is actually a very progressive municipal gov’t, with the added benefit that it can actually do things.

    Get Darren Davis going on this one.

    1. It works OK for Auckland because the old Auckland Regional Council (essentially the same level of government as the GVRD or Metro Vancouver as it is now known) had little to no powers governing growth and transportation planning. If they functioned in the same capacity as the GVRD did in the 80’s and 90’s laying out the plan for the region there would be no need to create a super city. Also what were the costs to Auckland ratepayers as the result of two amalgamations versus just one? In 1989, 20 or so Cities and Boroughs were merged into 4 cities, then in 2010 these 4 plus Papakura where merged into on super cities. Lost forever were places like Mount Eden, Newmarket, Devonport, Onehunga….

    2. I think Vancouverites are much more familiar with the electoral story of Toronto and Rob Ford, which involves the more conservative suburbs outvoting the central city and destroying progressive initiatives. I think making an argument on political terms would be a very tough sell, especially with what’s likely to be the result of the referendum, where there’s a good chance the outer suburbs will end up voting down the transit referendum.

  2. It’s the same as the fallacies permeating the referendum debate. People vastly overestimate the relative cost of the top level of bureaucracy.

    “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.”

    This is a thought that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while that I haven’t been able to express as succinctly. Well put.

  3. Another reason not to do it would be the low information voters from the ‘burbs voting down improvements needed for the inner city. Say bye,bye to bike lanes or anything like that. You can see the effect already with regards to the no voters in the transit plebiscite. Brent Toderian has already referred to it as our “Rob Ford moment”. I also suspect that amalgamization wouldn’t work without a ward system, and we all know hat happened the last time someone proposed that!

  4. In the Canadian context and precedents, amalgamation appears to be more expensive than the status quo. But from a democracy and municipal innovation/excellence point of view, amalgamation can be downright dull and dysfunctional.

    The Municipal and resident relationship is said to be the most effective form of democracy, with the least layers between them. While not perfect at any level, the municipal level of democracy allows for such a fine tuned level of decision making that helps create a sense of ownership, a sense of place for the community. The larger the jurisdiction, the larger the mistakes.

    The friendly competition between municipalities for jobs, cultural centres, tourists, residents, awards, etc., creates a race to the top type of vibrancy. This friendly rivalry has real time consequences in terms of innovation and investment. Amalgamation would be a heavy, wet blanket on municipal excellence..

  5. The example for the North Shore should be amalgamation of the two North Vancouver municipalities, not West Vancouver (with which of the two North Vans or both?).

    There aren’t really two North Van identities. Many people don’t know that there are two municipalities or where the borders are, including residents.

    Even if it doesn’t save much or any money, it seems cumbersome for residents and for planning purposes to have two municipalities in what is geographically and economically one area.

    1. That might make some sense, but economically I don’t see the benefit for the dense, service-heavy City to take on the sprawling district, as well as all the higher long-term infrastructure costs that includes.

      1. That is the accepted argument why the City of North Van does not want to amalgamate. Is it true? The City is more cash rich now but has little land. The District has much land and can redevelop and densify single family neighbourhoods for many more decades. A study of this and other financial implications would be useful.

  6. I actually took the time to look at the last municipal elections, and what was abundantly apparent was that while almost all District of North Vancouver candidates supported amalgamation, almost none of the City candidates did.

    I honestly don’t understand why anyone would think that having one North Van, surrounded entirely by a second North Van, makes any sense, but I guess that’s politics.

    In discussions about amalgamation, the costs saving argument was always what came up.

    When pressed though none of the proponents were ever able to come up with anything more than “We’re paying for two City Halls” and “We’re paying for two Fire Chiefs.”

    Ultimately the vast majority of municipal employees are actually doing stuff that matters, and can’t just be disappeared without residents losing some kinds of services or supports. To suggest that you could magically eliminate even ten percent of staff (or that anyone would settle for having half as many city councillors) is just ridiculous.

    As for West Vancouver? It will be a very frosty day when the fine burghers of West Van ever consider amalgamation with the peons in North Vancouver.

    1. Does a MetroVan-wide cooperation / fund allocation exists for firefighters or police ? Surely some significant cost savings could be obtained here as I think we have far too many fire halls with overpaid firefighters doing little for most of the time @ $100,000/head. Ditto with police or paramedics. Unclear to me why these services have to end at a certain municipal boundary.

      Looking at salaries of the municipal-like resident council at UBC (the UNA) where I was the VP Finance (aka Chair Finance Committee) for 2+ years the issue is not so much the # of city councils but the bureaucracy and pay scale below that with grotesquely overpaid secretaries, managers, accountants etc … The UNA paid 20-30% below comparable cities as they are not (yet) unionized.

      Quite a bit of replication of software systems, servers, minute keeping, record keeping, service allocation etc. where surely easily 10% or more of savings could be obtained. Unless it is forced upon them it is unlikely to happen though naturally. Perhaps a lost transit vote will be the catalyst, but that is unlikely. Too much inertia and navel gazing and prestige loss and well organized union power, of course.

      3 cities make sense to me:

      N-Van i.e. everything north of Burrard inlet
      Vancouver (plus Coquitlam, Burnaby, Port Moody, PoCo, new West)
      S-Van, i.e. Richmond, Delta(s), Surrey, White Rock, Tsawwassen

      Common sense is not so common though.

      But with a $5B+ budget across MetroVan’s 20+ municipalities even if we saved only 6% that would be $300M a year. Quite a few bike path, homeless meals, subways, wider sidewalks, social housing .. but who’s counting .. paying bloated salaries & benefits to too many civil servants always trumps common sense projects like bike path, homeless meals, subways, wider sidewalks, social housing ..

      No wonder people will vote “no” to higher taxes with that sort of waste around us !

  7. Where amalg makes immediate sense is with the tiniest of municipalities:

    Belcarra (645 people) & Anmore (2100) into Port Moody. Belcarra has 300 homes.

    Lion’s Bay (pop 1320) into West Van, or Bowen.

  8. I’ve often wondered how the tiny Village and Town municipalities of Long Island, Westchester County and Northern New Jersey along with Chicago has survived as long as they have with no talk of amalgamation. LA has some tiny cities aswell.

  9. My time in Houston has shown me that there are some pretty odd municipalities entirely surrounded by Houston proper like Bellaire and West University. The never amalgamated precisely because they wanted to keep their status.

    I’d be against a general amalgamation since the individual needs of the smaller cities would be overrun and ignored by the population centres of Vancouver and Surrey. For similar reasons, I think Vancouver would be helped by converting to a ward system (even though that’s never going to happen in my lifetime).

  10. Well, I don’t want my vote diluted by people who have different needs than I do. When one lives in a dense urban or close by area your needs are different than if you’re far from the centre and live very differently.
    I’m all for having many choices of types of living and I think it’s all good but seeing how some of the sensible new things in Vancouver have been received by those in the suburbs, I don’t want them to have any say in it.
    Many people will point to Toronto and how bad it’s amalgamation went. Those who live in the centre are struggling to get things done and they can’t because of those who just simply don’t understand.
    So, amalgamation? No.

  11. To return to Jarrett’s original point, Auckland now has what we need – a metropolitan transportation authority that is “an electable government with the power to actually do things.” We do not need to amalgamate municipalities to do that. We need to amalgamate Translink and Metro into a single, directly elected body with its own Mayor. Just like London.

    Many municipal services are best performed at the most local level possible. But transportation and the regional growth strategy are not of that kind. The province has interfered far too much, and has frustrated regionally determined plans. The highway expansions and the refusal to fund transit properly destroyed the Regional Growth Strategy. We still need to defend the Green Zone and I doubt the province shares our priorities.

    We need to have an effective regional plan – one that can not only be implemented but where there is oversight of municipal government, to ensure that regional priorities are not overridden by local ones. Transportation and land use are two sides of the same coin, and the authority needs to be capable of dealing with both effectively.

    The No side has convincingly demonstrated that the unelected Board of Translink is one of the weakest parts of the current arrangement, and going back to a board of Mayors, elected to do something else and with much more pressing local concerns, is not going to be much improvement. Metro lacks authority: its plans have no teeth. A directly elected Metro Council that replaces the current arrangement would increase accountability and effectiveness and would give regional voters the ability to take control not just of the transit system, but the way the region grows and changes.

    1. Totally agree.

      A Metro government would still require senior government funding partners, but its dependency would be far less if it had defined powers of taxation.

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