There is no doubt that, for many municipalities, the provincial desire in the 1990s in returning to wholesale municipal restructuring (not seen since the regionalization and county restructuring initiatives of the 1960s and 70s) was an unmitigated disaster. Despite the appearance of inviting local design and solutions, much of the amalgamations were in the hands of the provincial government through its proxy commissioners. The “logic” behind these amalgamations was to streamline service delivery and achieve cost reductions by eliminating duplication, as well as downloading some of the more costly provincially provided services unto municipalities through what was then called the Local Services Realignment. The impact of increased roles and responsibilities was supposed to be offset by amalgamating municipalities into larger units that could afford to take on the added burden. Although today the current provincial government has made steps to upload some of these services, this does not prove sufficient to fully rectify the issues that came of amalgamation or reverse the damage that was done during the Harris “common sense revolution.” In fact, even if all the services downloaded on municipalities were to be uploaded by the province, the financial impact of LSRs would still be felt. It is like suddenly being obliged to make car payments on a car one cannot afford, and even if those payments are taken over by someone else, you’re still out the payments you made that could have gone to other spending priorities.
Bigger is Not Always Better
It is one thing when two groups unite voluntarily because cooperation and collaboration may provide stronger advantage, and quite another to be forced into unification for survival. The crisis was not of the municipal sector’s making - things were financially on relative even keel after the restructuring experiments of the previous decades. It is hard not to see the Harris Government’s move as anything more than a manufactured crisis, and a cheap way of balancing its budget at the expense of a lower tier of government. We see such off- and downloading in the current relationship between the federal and provincial government in terms of eliminating the escalator funding for healthcare, and instead tying it to indirect measures like GDP.
The amalgamations that resulted in what can be deemed a kind of shotgun wedding, created larger municipalities. However, despite what may appear to be a viable solution in going for economic strength through size, this would prove to have an impact on service volume, capacity, level, and quality.
Let’s remember that this provincial exercise where it showed its muscle, was not just some minor, cosmetic change: the number of municipalities decreased by nearly 50%. It not only left a lot of (now merged) municipal governments gasping for air as they took on additional service delivery roles, it also left a bad taste in the mouths of those who believe local governments should have much more autonomy to go along with any additional responsibility - this autonomy largely stripped down courtesy of provincial commissions. Between the new roles and an arduous property tax reform, this not only put a chill on local governments that they had to go about restructuring before the province imposed an uglier solution, but it also was prohibitively expensive - something that undercut the very rationale behind the amalgamation exercise. Transition costs alone would have pretty much eliminated any of the projected savings, and even the projections taken on their own merits without factoring in transition costs did not exactly pan out.
Moreover, the community impact (the so-called “soft” quality of any municipality) is still apparent today. This is not to say that the mergers created in every case a kind of snake and mongoose situation of competing interests and identities, but there are still cultural and community tensions that are tied to older municipal boundaries. For some living in a particular pre-amalgamation enclave, there is certainly a sense of pride in self-identifying with what constituted that enclave’s identity. The loss of autonomy through merger creates a host of problems at the level of perception and identity, with some communities accusing councils of favouring another community at their expense. In some cases, the merged communities have very different interests, goals, and values, some of which are tied to economic identity. For example, an agricultural community may balk at being hitched to a largely dormitory community of ex-urban retirees that embrace gentrification (and, speaking of agri-communities, that is an area that I will address in a future post regarding decline and the need for creative diversification).
So, in sum, what were the previous markers of identity and “place-making” has to be rewritten, almost from scratch or modified substantially to accommodate the new amalgamated arrangement. This can result in an inter-municipal struggle as each community will seek to preserve its unique identity, but also to assert its “dominance.” Such struggles are usually expressed informally in conversation and attitude as residents of a community will say negative things about the other community; and formally through elected representatives on council who may be pressured to fight for the community specifically as opposed to governing for the whole municipality. Such arrangements make it so that each community in the merger sees the other as “alien,” and perhaps as receiving more benefit, or being of a lesser value.
Ultimately, there is no doubt that the restructuring and amalgamation exercise is classic neoliberalism applied. The downloading of responsibility and risk with a proportional loss of power and autonomy is emblematic of the neoliberal modus operandi. The provincial Tories perhaps convinced themselves this was a necessary move, beguiled by the apparent projected cost savings, but those savings came at the expense of a major buck-pass, and even though some of those downloaded services have since been uploaded by the Liberals, it is more akin to an egg: once it is broken, you can’t un-break it. For several years, municipal governments were carrying the load of many provincial services, to the tune of billions. That money is gone.
It is very unlikely that we will ever see a province-wide push for de-amalgamation. Although current trends do not suggest there is much appetite to go through a similar process again, there is also no provincial support for turning back the clock. And nor should there be if only because the process would entail spending a great deal of money undoing all the hard work municipal governments have done in trying to make the amalgamated communities work.
For better or worse, we are all stuck together. However, this can be a moment in which we can shine. There's a very real opportunity being seized by some local governments to redefine and promote a new identity that actually preserves the traditions of the former communities to create more dynamic and diverse identity. There will always be complaints that revolve around perceptions that some other community in the merged municipality is taking on more of the tax burden and receiving less services, but we need to step away from the tax questions and identify what truly distinguishes these new, pluralist community identities. And it is happening - not because, but in spite of, amalgamation.
There has been some chatter in a few circles about revisiting the amalgamation question and pushing it further. Talk of "super-counties" or the elimination of the tier system has been floated. That may possibly be fine if all we really want out of our local government is a large, centralized administrative bureaucracy that has a larger service area, but the wheels fall off the bus of that idea if people actually want effective representative government. Let's always remember the problems that arose when we started cutting down the number of school boards that now have larger areas to administer, or the bureaucratic entanglements of vast intermunicipal boards and agencies (largely only answerable to the province in some cases if they are created by statute). In a future post, I'll explore this question of creating super-counties as really just old wine in new bottles.