Readership SurveyReadership Survey
The Weather Network
Sep. 21, 2019 | Saturday
Local News
Is Ford planning the City of Niagara?
Photo illustration. (Niagara Now)

The province’s review of regional governments could mean Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Falls and Fort Erie will be forced to amalgamate as the new City of Niagara, area political leaders fear.

Or maybe one giant Niagara metropolis is in the cards.

Whatever happens, the change likely would not take effect until the next municipal election in 2022, but the decision to create a Niagara super city could come as early as this fall.

The province has launched an extensive review of regional governments across Ontario aiming to cut duplication and find efficiencies. With a report due by summer, local leaders are worried the outcome will be a shotgun-style wedding of small municipalities right across the province.

Premier Doug Ford’s track record of acting quickly, despite opposition, on issues like cutting Toronto council in half, has politicians wondering if Niagara and other regions are next.

While many politicians acknowledge there is plenty of room for improvement to the regional model of government, they are deeply concerned about the creation of a series of super cities roughly along federal and provincial riding boundaries.

No one yet knows how the review will play out, but interviews with a number of Niagara Region politicians showed they are all hearing a lot of rumblings about large-scale amalgamations.

NOTL Coun. Clare Cameron, the town’s deputy mayor, said the idea of one mega city for all of Niagara has also been mentioned.

“I have heard there’s a contingent working right now to drum up support for the idea of one Niagara, a single city for all of the Niagara Region. That’s not something I support, but I, of course, believe that every local mayor in the Niagara should be willing and ready to work together,” she said.

NOTL Lord Mayor Betty Disero said, “I’ve heard every scenario through the grapevine. Everybody is talking about everything.”

In extensive interviews, the mayors of NOTL, Niagara Falls and Fort Erie all said there is deep concern about how quickly the Ford government has acted in the past, especially in chopping the size of Toronto council.

“If I was a betting man, I’d guess that the province is going to look to a common denominator, and they’re going to look for one simple approach,” Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati said. “And I’d be quite surprised if it doesn’t involve a reduction in politicians and some form of amalgamation.”

It can be hard for small cities to get “sincere attention” at Queen’s Park compared to bigger cities, he added. “That’s the big concern. We need to go as one voice. Are there inefficiencies and overlapping? Of course there are.”

“But at the same time, there’s a move towards super cities,” Diodati said.

Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop also expects fewer politicians will result. “I wish I knew what was in the head of premier, but I don’t.”

“Obviously the premier is very interested in the number of elected officials, somehow equating fewer elected officials to better government, which I don’t believe is accurate. I don’t know how you have better democracy by having fewer elected representatives,” he said.

“But, it’s pretty clear that’s one of the targets of the premier.” He pointed out salary savings from fewer politicians would be minimal since many local councillors make only about $13,000 a year. Regional councillors earn about $30,000.

Disero, Cameron and Regional Coun. Gary Zalepa Jr. agreed improvements can be made to avoid duplications in management processes, but don’t necessarily think a blanket government should cover the whole region.

Maintaining the local identities of smaller communities would be tough, Disero said, pointing out NOTL’s communities have distinct identities, like the rural areas and the urban zones. Those differences already present a challenge to local councillors.

“Whatever happens, we need to maintain the local identities of those neighbourhoods and of the existing municipalities. To try to merge it into one monolithic city I think would not be an appropriate thing to do,” she said.

“(The province) is reviewing everything, and everything is on the table. So smaller amalgamations may be the way they go, big amalgamations might be the way they go, or they might just keep the local municipalities.”

Zalepa said towns with distinct identities like NOTL often require unique approaches to dealing with planning, development and preservation.

The solution needs to come from the municipalities themselves and not a “top-down order” from the premier, he said.

Cameron echoed that sentiment, noting she was speaking as both a councillor and a resident of NOTL. “I think everybody wants to see a successful future for the Niagara area, I’m just not convinced that amalgamation or elimination of elected officials is the best way to go about that.”

Every municipality in Niagara needs to be willing to partner and work together, she added. “We’re not competing with each other. We’re all in this together.”

Amalgamation, large or small, can create a lot of upheaval.

“I’m really concerned about the potential disruption and loss of identity that could result. The idea that amalgamation or elimination of one particular layer of government can solve all of our challenges I think is a foolish notion,” Cameron said.

“I totally appreciate wanting to see governments run as efficiently as possible, however I’m still not convinced the best way to go about that is to reduce the number of politicians. The word politician is often used as a dirty word, but in a democratic system elected representatives are there to represent people.”

Zalepa said communities should decide for themselves if they’d like to merge with another municipality and discuss the best options together.

He said he doesn’t want to see an end to NOTL. “Can you imagine if there was no Niagara-on-the-Lake? I think that could hurt tourism in Ontario,” he said.

Diodati agreed the biggest concern is local identities. “And people want to preserve that,” he said.

“However, when you look at past amalgamations, in Niagara Falls, approximately 50 years ago Chippawa was amalgamated into the city of Niagara Falls. Yet today, Chippawa is as distinct and unique as its ever been. They still have a sign, ‘Welcome to Chippawa,’ same with Stanford Centre in Niagara Falls. When you go to St. Catharines, Port Dalhousie is as distinct and unique as it’s always been.”

Diodati noted many other municipalities have amalgamated successfully in the past.

“It doesn’t make things disappear. You end up having a stronger voice when you’ve got more people collectively working as a group. And nobody wants to lose the distinctive character of different neighbourhoods and towns and communities.”

“However, just by amalgamating doesn’t remove the name or the character necessarily, because if the people feel strongly about it, it won’t go away.”

He said it’s about finding a happy medium between being a “bigger voice” with the province and preserving uniqueness.

Mayors across the region met Monday with two provincial representatives who are working on the regional review.

Diodati said the meeting was “casual.”

“I think it was not so much of a fact-finding mission so much as it was a perception kind of mission — finding out what’s the lay of the land, what’s the temperature of the water, and are people open to and accepting of changes?”

The representatives asked for feedback, “trying to get a feel for how people are perceiving this, and benefits that can be obtained through governance review and some forms of amalgamation, Diodati said. He acknowledged it’s “human nature to be resistant to change.”

Disero noted the premier has not given any hints as to what he wants to happen, but, “You can tell by what happened in Toronto that the number of politicians is certainly on the top of mind for him.”

“If they amalgamate into one big city, then everyone shares everything in terms of debt and revenue. If they decide that they’re only going to amalgamate some areas, again, some municipalities would become one and they would share everything,” she said.

Mega-mergers don’t necessarily save money, as Toronto discovered.

When the Mike Harris government forced Toronto to amalgamate in 1998, the city ended up with six town halls and six service areas anyway, Disero said.

“So really it was just administered by one big bureaucracy … It was divided, but together.”

Disero, who was on Toronto council when the city’s six municipalities were merged, says it’s not an easy thing to do. Toronto is “still struggling” to figure out how to preserve the identities of smaller communities while bringing down the cost to taxpayers, she said.

“Having lived through the Toronto experience with amalgamation, we went from sort of six municipalities doing their own thing, to an amalgamated version that made the cost of doing business go to the highest possible cost,” she said.

For example, a Scarborough firefighter couldn’t sit in the same firetruck as an Etobicoke firefighter unless they were both being paid equal wages.

“Well, the union isn’t going to let you go to the lower wage, it’s going to go up.”

And while costs went up, service levels often dropped, she noted.

For example, areas that had twice-weekly garbage collection were levelled to once a week.

“Everybody went to once a week at that point … and yet the costs to do it went up.”

Nonetheless, Disero said she thinks there could be a solution to improve the government structure in Niagara.

“All the politicians agree with trying to do something more streamlined and cost-effective for everybody,” she said. “There probably is some duplication in what we all do.”

“But the big question is going to be, ‘What is the most effective way of providing services?’ ” Disero said, adding she’s interested in the idea of getting private sector businesses involved to help.

“Look at our waste disposal. There are companies out there that can take our waste.”

She said the region’s mayors need to talk about potential changes and how to get the best prices to make services more cost-effective, which could include a bigger role for private companies.

While Disero is against the idea of mega-mergers, she said provincially subsidized services — like Ontario Works and government housing — probably should not be managed by local municipalities “and should probably stay at a more central location.”

“But when you look at issues with respect to planning, what do people want? They want their garbage collected, they want their streets cleaned and their snow removed, and they want their recreation centres open so they can go to them.”

“We can all agree that we want what’s best for the taxpayers. How we get there is what we’ve got to sort out with the province.”

Cameron said because the Niagara Region has many small municipalities it means there are a large number of elected officials.

“I know there are examples of duplicated areas of expertise between the region and the lower tiers, which is definitely worth looking at. But my concern is that at some point, whether it’s this year or next year, the wrench will be dropped let’s say, and suddenly municipalities that have existed for generations may simply no longer exist by provincial order, without very much consultation with those communities.”

Cameron imagines there are only a few possible outcomes of the Ford government’s regional review. 

“Number one is that we’re all told at a certain day in the future that Niagara is one city. And that itself could mean lots of different things. It could mean that regional council no longer exists — maybe just the local area mayors would become representatives on a regional kind of board or council. Maybe the region would no longer exist and local area municipalities would continue to exist, but the mayors would get together every month let’s say and co-ordinate services. Maybe the region would continue to exist, but some of the lower tiers would be amalgamated.”

“So maybe NOTL would end up amalgamated with St. Catharines and Thorold, or maybe the boundaries would follow provincial and federal riding boundaries and we would get amalgamated with Niagara Falls and Fort Erie. Maybe the upper tier and lower tier would still continue to exist but the number of elected officials will be cut in half. So does that mean that every municipality runs by-elections?

“The reason why I think that is possibly significant is because of how the recent reduction of city council members in Toronto went last year. A lot of the justification for that was related to riding boundaries in the city of Toronto. So I’m just wondering, well, if that was the logic applied to Toronto, maybe a similar logic would be applied to the province.”

____________________________________

Little learned from meeting Mayors from across Niagara Region met Monday with two provincial officials conducting a review of regional government.

“They gave me no information,” said Niagara-on-the-Lake Lord Mayor Betty Disero. “And that’s what was so surprising about it.”

She said they asked her how she feels about the current political representation, asked about service providers and wondered where she sees the municipality in 10 years.

“They gave me nothing. They, in terms of where they’re headed, basically said they’re open to conversations with everyone, and the public, and they’re not tied to anything.”

Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati is convinced that big changes are afoot.

He said he told fellow mayors, “Change is coming. In what form I’m not certain, but I can tell you that change is coming, and by ignoring it or resisting it, it’s just going be that much more unpleasant.”

He warned that if local politicians simply try to sell the province on ideas that benefit the municipalities, “You’re going to be very disappointed in the outcome of this, because I think this government has shown its knack for deciding what it wants to do and then following through expediently.”

Look no further than Toronto council going to 25 politicians from 47, just prior to the municipal election, he said.

“I believe there’s some going to be some major changes in the region, and when we go back to the polls for municipal elections in 2022, things are going to be very different than they are today,” Diodati said. “I think there will be a lot less politicians and I think there’s going to be major changes to the way the governance is done.”

Diodati said Niagara needs a “major overhaul” and he expects the majority of politicians won’t be around after 2022.

Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop isn’t sure a massive merger of Niagara municipalities is wise. 

“I just think that we don’t have the scale for one city for sure, and we need an opportunity to mature as a region. I mean, the premier can force whatever he wants. Whether that will be good for the residents and business of Niagara is a completely different story, I think.”

At Monday’s meeting, the provincial representatives said they have come to no conclusions yet, Redekop said. “They’re looking at a clean slate with respect to what, if anything, should be done.”

“It could mean that the government has already made up its mind and is look for reinforcement from these advisers, or it could mean that they really don’t know what they want to do, and they’re looking from advice from two very experienced individuals as to what the potential for changes could be.”

Disero said the mayors made their concerns known to the advisers. 

“I think they heard loud and clear that most municipalities wanted to retain their own identities and that they felt there wasn’t adequate scale to be, for example, eliminating the region and just having municipalities.”

f4033d7793009a4053c4497d8eccc3d53dc2dca8:f3b26ac4b4afe3f66e6edbd72929abcc23aa338f