Should we be one big city?

Water­loo Re­gion has con­sis­tently re­jected merg­ing its com­mu­ni­ties, so this Oc­to­ber 550,000 res­i­dents will see 59 politi­cians elected to man­age three cities, four town­ships and a re­gional gov­ern­ment. As Premier Doug Ford demon­strates his will­ing­ness to ste

Waterloo Region Record - - Front Page - LUISA D’AMATO

Toronto is reel­ing over the cuts to its city coun­cil by Premier Doug Ford.

What does it mean for Water­loo Re­gion?

Ear­lier this sum­mer, Ford sent shock waves through the en­tire prov­ince when he an­nounced Toronto city coun­cil would be cut to 25 seats from 47, start­ing this elec­tion. He also de­cided that sev­eral other mu­nic­i­pal po­si­tions across south­ern On­tario, which were to have been deter­mined by an elec­tion, will now be ap­pointed.

Ford’s move to cut the coun­cil in half was chal­lenged in Su­peri- or Court, which struck it down.

But ear­lier this week, Ford took the un­prece­dented and deeply con­tro­ver­sial step of in­vok­ing the “notwith­stand­ing” clause in the Charter of Rights and Free­doms, which al­lowed him to ta­ble the leg­is­la­tion again and over­ride the court rul­ing.

Never be­fore used in On­tario, or at the fed­eral level, the clause, also known as Sec­tion 33, al­lows gov­ern­ments to pass laws that ap­pear to vi­o­late cer­tain charter rights.

The en­tire episode has been a stark re­minder of the prov­ince’s wide-rang­ing pow­ers over mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

At a re­cent As­so­ci­a­tion of Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of On­tario meet­ing in Ot­tawa, Ford told mu­nic­i­pal lead­ers that he has no plans for fur­ther changes to the way mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are or­ga­nized.

“But he added the words: ‘For now,’” re­called Kitch­ener Mayor Berry Vr­banovic.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Mu­nic­i­pal Af­fairs Min­is­ter Steve Clark con­firmed a “broad” re­view is tak­ing place with the goal of mak­ing mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments more ef­fec­tive and ef­fi­cient.

“It’s time to con­sider whether changes are needed to im­prove mu­nic­i­pal gov­er­nance in com­mu­ni­ties where pop­u­la­tions have grown and the hard-earned dol­lars of tax­pay­ers are be­ing stretched,” said Michael Jig­gins.

Vr­banovic and other ob­servers ex­pect to see changes over the

next few years as Ford continues with his agenda of mak­ing gov­ern­ment leaner and taxes lower.

Cur­rently, our three cities and four town­ships elect their own coun­cil­lors and may­ors.

All the may­ors au­to­mat­i­cally sit on Water­loo re­gional coun­cil, along with eight in­de­pen­dently elected re­gional coun­cil­lors and one in­de­pen­dently elected re­gional chair. It’s a two-tier sys­tem in which the re­gion and the smaller mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties share re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

But it’s pos­si­ble that the re­gion could be­come one big “su­percity” that man­ages ev­ery­thing from waste­water fa­cil­i­ties to park­ing tick­ets.

If that hap­pens, the in­di­vid­ual cities of Kitch­ener, Water­loo and Cam­bridge, and the town­ships of Wool­wich, Welles­ley, Wilmot and North Dum­fries would cease to have their own gov­ern­ments.

It would cut down on the 59 elected in­di­vid­u­als — may­ors, town­ship and city coun­cil­lors, and re­gional coun­cil­lors who are elected sep­a­rately — that to­gether run our two-layer mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment.

This kind of up­heaval al­ready hap­pened 18 years ago to Hamil­ton, Toronto, Ot­tawa and Sud­bury un­der the cost-cut­ting On­tario gov­ern­ment led by for­mer premier Michael Har­ris.

Over­all, the num­ber of mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in On­tario was cut nearly in half, to 444 from 850, dur­ing Har­ris’ man­date.

Water­loo Re­gion wasn’t touched at that time. But we got a clear mes­sage from Har­ris: Stream­line lo­cal gov­ern­ment your­self, or the prov­ince will do it for you.

It turned out to be eas­ier said than done.

Sev­eral com­mis­sions were put to­gether to rec­om­mend changes. The first, led by a re­spected for­mer cab­i­net min­is­ter from Kitch­ener, John Sweeney, pre­dated the ar­rival of the Har­ris gov­ern­ment in 1995.

A few months after the elec­tion that swept Har­ris’ Con­ser­va­tive Party into power, Sweeney urged that the re­gion’s three cities and four town­ships be merged into one large city.

Store­front of­fices in cen­tres through­out the re­gion would con­nect people with ser­vices.

But Sweeney got deeply frus­trated with the lo­cal lack of will­ing­ness to change. He felt “boxed in.”

He quit as soon as he sub­mit­ted his re­port to coun­cil in Novem­ber 1995.

“There has to be an ab­so­lute con­vic­tion that you’re look­ing for dif­fer­ent ways of do­ing things. Most of what I’m hear­ing are rea­sons why things shouldn’t change,” he told coun­cil­lors.

Later re­ports rec­om­mended a less rad­i­cal strat­egy of mov­ing more mu­nic­i­pal ser­vices to the con­trol of the re­gional gov­ern­ment, such as pub­lic tran­sit, fire­fight­ing, and waste man­age­ment in­clud­ing garbage col­lec­tion.

Some of these goals were fi­nally achieved in 2000, after an­other re­port from Gerry Thom­son, chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer for the re­gion.

In that year, lo­cal vot­ers got to di­rectly elect re­gional coun­cil­lors and the re­gional chair. (Pre­vi­ously, the re­gional coun­cil­lors came from al­ready-elected city and town­ship coun­cils, which car­ried the con­cern of di­vided loy­al­ties.)

Also, ser­vices such as tran­sit and garbage were bumped up to the re­gion from the cities. So­cial ser­vices and af­ford­able hous­ing be­came in­creas­ingly con­cen­trated at the re­gional level.

But this was in­cre­men­tal change, not the shot­gun wed­dings that turned Hamil­ton and Toronto into gi­ant cities that ab­sorbed small towns and ru­ral ar­eas nearby.

To­day in Water­loo Re­gion, re­gional gov­ern­ment has be­come more pow­er­ful, but there is still a patch­work of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

The two-tier sys­tem we have, where the Re­gion of Water­loo works with the city or town­ship to pro­vide ser­vices, makes sense to some but is con­fus­ing for oth­ers.

Cities and town­ships op­er­ate their own fire­fight­ing ser­vices, but polic­ing and emer­gency med­i­cal ser­vices are man­aged re­gion­wide. Cities have their own li­braries, but the re­gion op­er­ates li­braries in smaller ru­ral cen­tres. Sup­port of arts and cul­ture is shared among all mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties. The cities build trails, parks and com­mu­nity cen­tres; the re­gion looks after ma­jor roads. Water­loo Re­gion pro­vides the main wa­ter sup­plies, while the smaller mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties op­er­ate dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tems

After Hamil­ton and Ot­tawa amal­ga­mated, taxes weren’t the same for ev­ery­one in the new mu­nic­i­pal­ity. A dif­fer­ent sys­tem called “area rat­ing” was used that took into ac­count the ser­vices pro­vided and debt in­curred by a par­tic­u­lar area.

A 2008 re­port by a grass­roots group called Cit­i­zens For Bet­ter Gov­ern­ment, sug­gested how this might hap­pen lo­cally. For ex­am­ple, “the RIM Park debt could be left with Water­loo res­i­dents,” it said.

“Town­ships which choose to be served by part-time rather than

full-time fire­fight­ers would pay less for their fire ser­vices, and Kitch­ener res­i­dents could con­tinue to ben­e­fit from own­er­ship of their gas util­ity.”

And taxes could be frozen for sev­eral years “un­til the newly amal­ga­mated mu­nic­i­pal­ity worked out re­struc­tur­ing bugs.”

The re­port ques­tioned whether the re­gion still needs seven sep­a­rate fire de­part­ments, for ex­am­ple. It sug­gested sev­eral op­tions for amal­ga­ma­tion in­clud­ing the start­ing point that Kitch­ener and Water­loo merge into one city.

But in the 2010 elec­tion, when that is­sue was put to a vote, there wasn’t agree­ment. Kitch­ener cit­i­zens were in favour and Water­loo cit­i­zens were not.

“That’s when we folded up our tent,” said Jim Erb, one of the or­ga­niz­ers of the 2008 re­port and now a can­di­date for Water­loo re­gional coun­cil.

He re­al­ized that with­out buy-in from the prov­ince and re­gional gov­ern­ment, noth­ing would hap­pen.

Any at­tempt to turn Water­loo Re­gion into a sin­gle-tier gov­ern­ment has the po­ten­tial to be­come “very di­vi­sive, and that needs to be avoided at all costs,” Erb said.

“One of the great hall­marks of (re­gional chair) Ken Seil­ing’s time is: ‘Let’s cre­ate peace around the fam­ily din­ner ta­ble.’”

Ad­vo­cates of change to a one-tier gov­ern­ment say that people are cur­rently con­fused about who does what when re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are shared. They also are con­cerned about the po­ten­tial for overly large bu­reau­cra­cies with two-tier gov­ern­ments.

The big­gest con­cerns about one-tier gov­ern­ment come from Cam­bridge.

That city also has the most ex­pe­ri­ence with amal­ga­ma­tion. In 1973, the towns of Pre­ston and He­speler were merged with the city of Galt to form the City of Cam­bridge. It was thought to be a nec­es­sary step, as the area was ex­pand­ing after the Sec­ond World War, and smaller lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties might have strug­gled to pro­vide ser­vices.

But the three com­mu­ni­ties had dif­fer­ent points of view and the dif­fer­ences of opinion of­ten be­came bit­ter, Univer­sity of Water­loo his­tory pro­fes­sor Ken McLaugh­lin wrote in “Cam­bridge: The Mak­ing of a Cana­dian City.”

Pre­ston wanted its own city sta­tus and wanted to an­nex lands north of High­way 401, “to pre­vent the en­croach­ment of Kitch­ener,” McLaugh­lin re­counted.

Fiercely in­de­pen­dent He­speler also sought to ex­pand rather than amal­ga­mate.

By con­trast, Galt res­i­dents were happy to merge with the other two, as long as the new city was also called Galt.

That didn’t sit well. The re­tir­ing mayor of He­speler was heard to re­mark, “It’s all Galt, Galt, Galt. I’m so sick of it I could chuck the whole thing.”

In the end, a six-month-long dis­pute over the name ended in He­speler and Pre­ston join­ing forces to favour the name “Cam­bridge” over Galt’s choice of “Blair.”

The ri­val­ries be­tween the dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties still run deep.

“It’s been ex­tremely dif­fi­cult,” said long-stand­ing Cam­bridge Mayor Doug Craig, who started his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer as an al­der­man from He­speler in 1976.

After 45 years, he still hears com­plaints from con­stituents, such as a con­cern that Galt gets more than its share of re­sources.

“That forced amal­ga­ma­tion caused an­i­mosi­ties,” he said.

Craig is con­cerned about the idea of fold­ing Cam­bridge into a re­gion­wide mu­nic­i­pal­ity. The city’s voice “would be ex­tin­guished,” he said.

Craig sug­gests the city al­ready doesn’t get its fair share of some ameni­ties, such as a light rail tran­sit line, GO trains to Toronto, or its own court­house. Those ameni­ties are present in Kitch­ener-Water­loo.

(Other politi­cians point out that GO trains and the court­house are un­der pro­vin­cial con­trol. A 2014 re­gional study showed that Cam­bridge gets a net ben­e­fit in other re­gional ser­vices. It re­ceives more child care and so­cial ser­vices from the re­gion than it pays for in taxes. Three of the re­gion’s five child-care cen­tres are in Cam­bridge, for ex­am­ple.)

Mean­while, stud­ies of amal­ga­ma­tion that hap­pened to other com­mu­ni­ties show mixed re­sults. Craig pointed to a study by the In­sti­tute of Mu­nic­i­pal Fi­nance and Gov­er­nance at the Munk School of Global Af­fairs, Univer­sity of Toronto.

It said there was lit­tle ev­i­dence of cost sav­ings when the City of Toronto was amal­ga­mated with 13 other neigh­bour­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in 1998. Spend­ing per house­hold on ar­eas such as fire, garbage, li­braries and parks in­creased after amal­ga­ma­tion, the study noted.

But part of the rea­son for that was more equal­ity through­out the new city. The mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of York and East York had been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing de­clin­ing tax bases and lower lev­els of ser­vice. After amal­ga­ma­tion, ser­vice in those ar­eas was sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter, the study noted. Prop­erty tax rates also har­mo­nized and be­came more equal.

The non-mon­e­tary benefits of amal­ga­ma­tion are in plain view, in the ex­pe­ri­ence of other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, lo­cal politi­cians say.

“The amal­ga­mated cities are able to speak with one voice to the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment,” said re­gional Chair Ken Seil­ing.

That’s es­pe­cially true of Toronto, which, due to its sheer size, be­came a “pow­er­house” when amal­ga­mated.

If well planned, a larger mu­nic­i­pal­ity can help share the wealth and tackle prob­lems to­gether, as well. Whether it’s a bus route or opi­oid ad­dic­tion pro­gram, plan­ning goes more smoothly if the lines be­tween com­mu­ni­ties are por­ous.

For ex­am­ple, one man­u­fac­turer lo­cated in Kitch­ener re­cently ex­panded and needed more space. There wasn’t more avail­able land in Kitch­ener, so of­fi­cials there helped the com­pany build a sec­ond plant in Cam­bridge, said Vr­banovic, the Kitch­ener mayor.

The busi­ness ended up be­ing so suc­cess­ful it used all that space and now has plants in both cities. Other­wise it may have moved out of the re­gion al­to­gether, Vr­banovic said.

No mat­ter who sends out the tax bill or writes the park­ing tick­ets, people will still feel as if they come from Bres­lau, or New Ham­burg, or up­town Water­loo, he said.

“The val­ues we hold as a re­gion are still go­ing to be the same.”

MATHEW MCCARTHY WATER­LOO RE­GION RECORD FILE PHOTO

The amal­ga­ma­tion is­sue arose in Water­loo Re­gion in 2008 when a group pro­posed that Kitch­ener and Water­loo merge, but the is­sue died out after the 2010 mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion.

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