The good and bad of amalgamation - Keith Roulston editorial
As North Huron and Morris-Turnberry Councils prepare for a negotiation session to try to solve the cross-border servicing issues between the two municipali-ties, it’s interesting to note that we’re in the 20th anniversary of the shotgun weddings that created the municipalities in the first place.
Both municipalities were created in 2001 after Ontario Premier Mike Harris gave municipalities the choice of finding their own partners in a municipal amalgamation or having the province impose its own union of local governments. Having witnessed the expensive disaster of provincially-imposed regional governments in more urban areas, rural municipalities rushed to find partners. New municipalities were created across Huron County — except for rebel Howick Township that gambled on staying on its own and got away with it.
Across the province, the Harris ultimatum resulted in the number of municipalities being reduced from 815 to 447. As it announced the creation of each new partnership, the Harris government touted the supposed savings from the marriage and the reduction in the number of elected local politicians. Harris, like current Premier Doug Ford, seemed to think having more local people involved in community decision-making was a problem, not an asset.
The idea that amalgamations would save money seemed natural, given that each municipality had its own administrative staff, road crew and equipment, municipal office, etc. Surely there were duplications that would be eliminated when borders were reduced.
But, as a 2015 analysis by the Fraser Institute showed, the amalgamations actually increased property taxes, public sector employee compensation, and long-term debt throughout the province. The analysis found there wasn’t any tangible financial gain from amalgamation.
One benefit of combining the tax bases of neighbouring municipalities was the increased financial muscle that could be applied to larger, more expensive projects. I’m benefitting from that right now because the amalgamated Township of North Huron is paving the section of Moncrieff Rd. in front of my property with tar and chips. I suspect the old Township of East Wawanosh could never have afforded that.
But the same project also shows the disadvantage of larger, more distant municipal governments. The construction project included changing the road’s profile and recontouring the roadsides. Supposedly someone was hired to replant the roadsides with grass seed but only a strip immediately along the road was planted, leaving a much wider area down to the edge of neighbouring fields to grow up in weeds. No one with decision-making power seems to have noticed this, or the fact that the seeder seems to have run out of grass seed even in the roadside strip for a substantial part of our block.
But, getting back to the current dispute between Morris-Turnberry and North Huron over funding of things like recreational services and the extension of water and sanitary sewage services into developments outside urban areas, a side effect of creating larger municipalities seems to be hardened boundaries. Because municipalities are larger, they seem to forget they still need each other.
I covered municipal councils off and on for 40 years before amalgamation. What I remember is that despite municipal boundary lines, services operated on a community basis. When Blyth and Brussels had to build new arenas, councillors and residents of neighbouring rural areas joined right in to provide the money to build the arenas they’d all use, and in doing so, wove a tight social network that pulled people together.
Blyth had one of the first district fire departments, serving beyond its borders to fight fires in Hullett, East Wawanosh, Morris, McKillop and West Wawanosh Townships. It was run by a board that included representatives of all municipalities served, again pulling a community together. Post-amalgamation, squabbles over paying for fire protection had Morris-Turnberry proposing to start its own fire department at one point, which would have created an expensive duplication of service.
I always felt the provincial rules for amalgamation set up the system to fail. Splitting of existing municipalities was forbidden. Yet life revolves around communi-ties, not municipal boundaries. Almost every town and village in the county sits on a boundary of two or more rural townships. Amalgamation rules left communities tugged apart in different directions.
There have been attempts to create “communities” around the amalgamation lines, but these municipalities are artificial marriages of convenience and bear little resemblance to living communities. Municipal councillors must remember that it’s communities that matter, not boundary lines.