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Friday, August 19, 2022
Opinion: Reviewing the Situation


In January, Ford’s Progressive Conservative government announced that it was undertaking a review of regional governments in order to save money and provide better servicing to taxpayers.

Michael Fenn, a former deputy minister and one-time chief executive of Metrolinx, and Ken Seiling, the recently retired chair of Waterloo region, were appointed to conduct the research and make recommendations by July. It is unclear why such a short timeline was imposed but Ford has stated that although he is waiting to hear what Municipal Affairs Minister Steven Clark will recommend, he wants to take action by the end of the year.

If the goal is better use of taxpayers’ dollars and making it easier to access or improve municipal services than why do Ford and Clark seem to have already made the assumption that reducing the number of local representatives is an effective way of cutting costs prior to the consultation with regions being completed and without any public input? Many people are concerned that Ford will impose amalgamation which, if the PCs were using an evidence-based decision-making model, they would clearly see that past experience and research have clearly shown it to be a failed strategy.

Lord Mayor Betty Disero and Regional Councillor Gary Zalepa Jr. both agree that the best approach is to take the government at their word – that the end goal of this review process is to improve the effectiveness of local and regional government. People should not focus on amalgamation but on the opportunity to develop a service delivery system that best meets the needs of our growing population.

The region and twelve local municipalities have decided to work together, forming ‘Team Niagara’ to consult with the public and create a made in Niagara solution that they plan to present to Queen’s Park. Disero along with town councillors Gary Burroughs and Stuart McCormack have also formed a committee to formulate an official response from the town.

Zalepa stated that although he is concerned about the speed of the process, he feels there are inefficiencies that need to be addressed and restructuring of certain administrative functions could bring real benefits to residents. He believes a hybred solution that recognizes the unique characteristics of the town and the region should lead to a solution that respects local government.

Both Zalepa and Disero also agreed that the cost associated with retaining the positions of town councillors was minimal compared to the entire budget and should not be a major concern. Councillors are part-time employees that earn $13,000 per year and perform an important function in our local democracy.

The Lord Mayor said that during her meeting with Fenn and Seiling, they acknowledged the special attributes of Niagara-on-the-lake, although she added “that and a cup of coffee doesn’t necessarily mean anything” in terms of the final recommendations they will make. However, she remains optimistic and hopes that taking a proactive approach will lead to improvements that the provincial government will support while retaining local autonomy.

Disero also stated that she remembered from her days on Toronto Council the greater inefficiencies and increased costs that were associated with amalgamation. In addition, downloading of services from the province without providing tools for raising additional money to fund these new responsibilities ultimately led to reduction of services.

This experience has recently been mirrored in Toronto when Ford impulsively imposed a reduction of Council without consultation with local politicians or residents. There were no greater efficiencies experienced but resulted in less accessibility and hiring of additional staff to manage increased workloads.

Zalepa feels that Niagara residents should pay close attention to this issue and participate in the consultation process. He also said that at this point he has faith in Fenn and Seiling as they are well respected individuals with extensive Ontario municipal governance experience. However, he strongly maintains that Niagara is a unique region from the perspective of our history, agriculture, and environment and we must preserve our small-town identities. Economic growth should be built upon these strengths.

But what do the experts say about how to achieve the goals of better service delivery, more effective governance, and reducing financial waste? The conservative based Fraser Institute reviewed the issue of amalgamation and municipal or local governments in 2015. The conclusion of the report was “consolidation has failed to produce cost savings, rarely leads to more efficient service delivery, and reduces the ability of citizens to be involved in the life of local governments.”

Many other studies have come to the same conclusion and in fact some have raised the issue of whether municipalities being “a creature of the province” with no inherent powers or ability for self-determination makes sense in the 21st century. When the Constitution Act was passed in 1867, 84 percent of Canadians lived in rural areas. Today, over 80 percent of Canadians live in urban areas which deliver the majority of daily used services to their residents. Despite a radical shift in the importance of towns and cities, provinces retain total control over revenue and even their right to exist.

While Ford claims that he wants to create a more financially sustainable model of governance for taxpayers, all the research points to the fact that if he was really serious about the province being ‘open for business’, he would be listening to experts around the world who have pointed to the fact that increasing local fiscal autonomy results in greater accountability and efficiencies. A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit which dealt with the future competitiveness of cities stated that “there is a strong correlation between the quality of a city’s institutions and its overall competitiveness.” They went on to say that a city’s ability to tax, plan, legislate and enforce laws” is critical.

In fact, it may seem odd that a conservative government would move toward centralizing control of municipal duties and promote big government, pushing decision making further away from residents.

That is not to say that local governments should not work together, coordinate, and even share responsibilities on a voluntary basis when it serves the best interests of their residents. What is does say is that top down decision making has never proven to be beneficial to ‘the people’, with the exception of bureaucrats, technocrats, and special interests that have the ear of those in power.