There’s no quick fix for capital confusion

I moved here last May and was completely perplexed by the fall municipal elections.

I moved here last May and was completely perplexed by the fall municipal elections.

As a transplant from Calgary, I simply couldn’t understand why a geographically and economically interdependent region with a quarter of the population of Calgary would need 13 municipal councils.

For me, amalgamation seemed like a no-brainer: reducing redundancy and improving efficiency was bound to clarify the political situation and streamline economic growth. I thought of it as a playground with 13 separate sandboxes, each being used by a different kid, none of whom realized that if they combine all the sandboxes together, they could build one heck of a castle.

It turns out that I made the same assumption that most pro-amalgamation advocates make: a bigger, “simpler” system must be better for the economy and the political environment.

It seems logical that creating a larger tax base will allow for more money for social programs and infrastructure projects, as well as providing aid to the economically weaker areas in the region.

Unfortunately, this logic doesn’t hold up to reality. Looking at other cities that have amalgamated, it’s easy to see the results don’t live up to the hype. Halifax provides an excellent example.

The parallels between Metro-Halifax and Greater Victoria are easy to see. The overall population, economy and combination of rural and urban municipalities are similar. Fifteen years after their amalgamation, Halifax is still wondering where the magical, cost-saving, economy-boosting benefits are.

In The Savage Years: The Perils of Reinventing Government in Nova Scotia, several social scientists explore the chasm between the expectations and realities of amalgamation in Cape Breton and Halifax.

The reality was much different. The “economy of scale” never created substantial savings, because people wanted to get paid more for having more responsibilities and they wanted to get paid as much as their neighbours for similar jobs.

Additionally, citizens became distanced from their local political leaders, while simultaneously being handed fiscal responsibility for more services and programs which the province downloaded onto them.

The “ending of destructive competition” led to monopolized institutions that blunder on, oblivious to the needs (and wishes) of the taxpayers and without facing any consequences for their incompetence.

The only actual benefit of amalgamation was the region’s ability to engage in coherent planning. Amalgamation allowed for better long-term visions for growth and infrastructure, as well as increased police efficiency.

Ironically, William Hayward has declared that none of these benefits required amalgamation to be realized.

They could all be achieved by empowering a regional political body to co-ordinate such efforts without the loss of municipal autonomy.

Why is this ironic? Hayward was put in charge by Nova Scotia to oversee and effect the amalgamation of Halifax. He was also the independent advisor who studied the potential amalgamation of Halifax and advised primarily against it.

This seems to be a lesson that Greater Victoria has already learned. The Capital Region District council exists and works to provide the benefits of amalgamation without the costs. However, there are more services and projects where increased integration and co-operation would be beneficial. Police co-ordination and the mass transit projects come to mind.

I applaud the efforts of Victoria Coun. Shellie Gudgeon in providing a non-partisan forum for discussing these issues. However, I believe that mayors Nils Jensen (Oak Bay) and Frank Leonard (Saanich) are right to be shying away from amalgamation.

Voters need to be informed about the historical realities of modern amalgamations and not only the idealized “efficiencies” and “savings” that don’t materialize in the real world.

Push your local representatives for increased co-operation and service integration within the CRD, but beware of the amalgamation “quick fix.” It doesn’t really fix anything.

—Calgary native Heather Snider is an Honours English student at the University of Victoria. She wrote this piece for her third-year Canadian geography class at UVic.

 

 

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