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
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.”
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.