Amalgamation: Questions and Answers

Written by Harold McNeill on October 21st, 2014. Posted in Amalgamation Posts, Editorials


Capital Regional District

College (L to R): (T) Langford, Sidney, Victoria, Saanich, Highlands,
(C) Esquimalt, (Malahat), (CRD) Oak Bay, Metchosin,
(B) Colwood, Sooke, North Saanich, Central Saanich, View Royal
(Link to Photo Album)
Link to original Post: Amalgamation in Victoria

Note: After this Question and Answer post was written and published, and by pure chance, while doing a further search, an astounding discovery was made: The Bish Papers.  These papers, written by a renowned Economist and researcher into Public Administration, pulled away the veil of opinion and conjecture that defined the debate on Amalgamation. You may still wish to read this post and the one previous (linked above), however for solid, reliable information read the papers Dr. Robert L. Bish.  Link here:

Amalgamation: A Search for the Truth

The Real Costs of Amalgamation (Time Colonist November 23, 2014)

Introduction:

Since posting the original Amalgamation article in 2011, then updating it in October 2014, a number of exchanges regarding the content have taken place. The updated original (linked above) spoke to the many advantages of living in the Capital Regional District.  Clearly, not everyone agreed: dysfunctional, costly, over-supplied, cronyism, duplication, poor-decision making, hidden incompetence, poor media coverage, etc. These were just a few of the words used to describe the CRD and its members.

The words were spoken by otherwise thoughtful, intelligent individuals who are totally committed to the cause of amalgamation. On the other hand, I am equally committed to preserving the best of what we have. Most often the comments on either side appear only in posts where an individual is preaching to the converted.  In this post, the contrasting ideologies are placed side by side. Whatever may be the outcome, I don’t want CRD members or electorate, being pushed into making a decision based on faulty information or the whims of a few people. The four situations in #7 involving bad and very expensive outcomes pushed forward by persons in a position of power, as outlined in the final section of this post.

First, a sample of the questions asked and the answers given:

1. Question: 

There is a thing you refuse to answer in your posts and that really hits at the core of the matter: if you were drawing municipal Fort_Victoria_watercolourboundaries from scratch based on what would serve the people of the region best, would you draw the lines where they are today?

Painting:  Watercolor painting of the southwest bastion of Fort Victoria with harbour to the left by Sarah Crease (wife of Henry), 8 September 1860.  It was from these humble beginnings other communities began to take shape along the Saanich Peninsula and West to a community now called Sooke.

Answer:

I have mixed feelings about ‘what might have been’ questions. I seldom ask them of myself, as the question never helped me to move forward. My gut feeling, based upon 55 years of living in this area, is that had this city began and remained just one city from early in the last century, many of the CRD areas would not be nearly as well developed, and filled with citizens who were generally satisfied with their lives, nor would they be as close to their government as they are today. Even within the core, when Oak Bay, Esquimalt and Saanich began to emerge, they ended up with their own districts rather than as part of Victoria.  I spoke more to this matter in Part 6 of Amalgamation in Greater Victoria

2. Question:

I was born here and have been a resident of “Victoria” for the last 30+ years. In that time I have lived in Esquimalt, Gordon Head, Oak Bay, Fernwood, and North Quadra, and have worked or attended school in other neighbourhoods. The idea that it makes sense for me to have to cross three municipal boundaries to get to work on a 15-minute bus ride is simply absurd.

The idea that my elected representatives have no say in two of those municipalities is profoundly undemocratic. If I want to operate a business in thisCRD Members “town” I have to navigate a network of jurisdictions and licences. Try being a builder in this town and dealing with 13 different inspection and approval regimes. (The question appears to be, “How do you square this?)

Answer:

Ah, but it is nice getting to and from work in fifteen minutes is it not? I lived in West Saanich for the last fifty years and worked in Oak Bay for thirty – it was perhaps a twenty-five-minute drive on a bad traffic day.  Ideally, choosing a location to live usually involves finding those things which best suits a family or an individual. We have a great many choices in the CRD, far more than most cities in Canada and in each case we end up being close to our government and municipal staff.

About not liking what neighbours are doing when crossing their land – Really? Within certain limitations, what neighbours do is pretty much their own business don’t you think? As noted above, in the CRD we have many choices, from city to urban. A good deal of our strength is having a choice about where we live and how we wish to see our community evolve. Because that limits your choice in what others do, that’s tough, but that’s life. Be a good neighbour, and work to make your home district more productive, more attractive and more economically viable and one day, maybe, just maybe, your neighbour(s) might ask to share the bounty you earned through hard work and vision.

In the CRD we certainly need city wide rules and shared services. That’s why we have the CRD and other multi-jurisdictional agencies to look after group interests such as parks, libraries, water, hospitals, transit, region-wide bylaws, cross-boundary school districts – the list goes on. It’s not perfect by any means, but as a bureaucracy, the CRD and various agencies do a pretty good job. Having this type of jurisdictional system is just as legitimate as having a mega-city where power becomes concentrated in the hands of a few in the central core. It Building Inspectorsmight cost some areas more (e.g. Oak Bay), but that is largely the choice of their citizens.  If they wanted to reduce costs and get better service, they could always merge with Victoria or Saanich. That might reduce costs, but that seems highly unlikely.

As for contractors – experience suggests small outfits work only in one or two areas while larger ones learn to handle the routines. It can pose some problems, but thank goodness greasing palms and political favouritism is not a part of the system as in some Canadian cities.

When you see all the construction going on across the CRD, contractors must have figured out how to navigate the system. It’s hard to imagine the amount of insider deals that must take place in some of our larger cities (e.g. Montreal, Toronto).  I think Vancouver and others in the GVRD largely escape that problem as they also have the advantage of being made up of smaller, independent units.

3. Question:

I am disappointed that you believe in the over-supply of municipal management. Do you think it is fine as it is? With 13 departments there is a lot of opportunity for cronyism, in duplication of management and in support services. Of course, the fact that the local media cannot possibly cover 13 municipal governments means that it is much easier to hide incompetence and poor decision-making.

Answer:

Over-supply? Cronyism? Duplication? Poor-decision making? Hidden incompetence? That’s a pretty negative assessment of what exists across the groups that made up the CRD.

Growing the size of government and government services has serious cost implications that will not go away by just “rearranging the chairs” as Mayor Dean Fortin has suggested. I’m by no means a Libertarian and while you might eliminate 12 mayors and councils, they largely volunteer positions and part of the reason people chose a smaller unit – people want a government they can reach, not some group in the central core that become nearly impossible to access. When politicians and bureaucrats are given concentrated power, they become better at finding ways to grow.

When the decision-making systems become more remote, little wheels that once had some control over the bicycle, become a single spoke in a big wheel. Soon, they may not count for more than one rivet.

Gone would be the days of walking into the Mayor’s office, having a coffee and complaining about Molly dropping her … grass clippings on the sidewalk. No siree, unless you belonged to the Union Club or were a leading businessman, the best you might get is a few minutes with an assistant in one of the outlying community offices.  Access to the senior levels of big government is often restricted to those having power and influence within the system. That is not so in a smaller system.

As for the media bias in the current discussions, I spoke quite forcefully on that subject in a previous post.

4. Question:

If you insist on this (the present) model, would you support the independence movement for James Bay? I know that many feel Victoria City Council does not represent their interests so perhaps it is time we were a stand-alone municipality. I know the Uplands have often Cessesion mused about seceding from Oak, would you support that?

Cartoon:  James Bay decides to secede from Victoria while the white dove that is Uplands waits to see how the secession works before putting her own head on the chopping block.

Answer:

I have never had much time for secessionists. Unless there is some overwhelming reason based on injustice and blatant inequality, it most often leads to bitter recriminations and long-standing animosity. When provinces, countries, cities or towns begin splitting up, it has a profound negative effect on everyone so, for James Bay and Uplands, breaking does not make much sense. In this region, province and country, we have a fairly solid system that is integrated in a variety of ways that seems to work well.

I feel the same way about  ‘amalgamationists’. Unless the political/services machine is substantially broken, or if two or more parties voluntarily choose to join forces, that is their choice unless there was subterfuge or false promises made our potential outcomes. Parties seeking to willingly join forces need to work out the fine details for, as they say, “the devil is in the details’. If they do that and the citizenry well informed, they should be allowed to proceed.

Of the many forced amalgamations across Canada, the following quote is made by Tim Hooper (National Post), in an article discussing John Ranns, the Mayor of the District of Metchosin, when he spoke of an amalgamated CRD in these words:

But in the wake of arguably disastrous municipal amalgamations in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and dozens of others communities across Canada, critics warn that Victoria should hang onto its baker’s dozen of fiefdoms at all costs.” (Full Article)

5. Question:  

We fundamentally get bad government in this region because our local governments are not capable of looking at the bigger picture of what makes the most sense for how to plan our city.   Our local government has to be a reflection of where we live, work, shop and play.

Big City LifeThe status quo means most people are substantially disenfranchised from decision-making in our city  – people are not allowed to elect councillors that significantly affect their lives.

Finally, and this is the most relevant issue for me, the cost of local government in this region is about $100,000,000 more than it needs to be only because we have 13 local governments

In the case of Oak Bay, the cost of the government is $8,000,000 more than it needs to be – that is about $450 per resident.

Answer: 

I honestly did not realize we were in such bad shape.  A $100,000,000 loss!  Disenfranchised? Bad Government? I certainly see nothing wrong with studying the issues and I am surprised no one has done that, but by the costs you suggest and the issues you raise, you paint a pretty bleak picture of our city. I rather doubt many would support your vision and if they did, they have probably not looked very closely at the current figures.

In the previous post, I pointed to the many good things that have been accomplished over the past hundred years or so, but those things seem to have escaped the notice of business leaders and citizens promoting amalgamation. How could you possibly explain such good things happening in an area that was so grossly mismanaged?

Here is a short example of property and school taxes in another small community. For years I owned a home on a single lot Cold Lake Alberta (an estate property). It was a nice little home with a big lot on a quiet street and just a short distance from the main beach. It was very similar to our home here in Saanich, however, the taxes in Cold Lake (pop. 16,000) were significantly more than on our home in Saanich.

The services received in Cold Lake (e.g. roads, sidewalks, sewers, streetlight, police, fire, etc.) were OK, but not nearly as well developed as here. It was only due to a large influx of oil money in recent years that helped to improve things in Cold Lake. The residents of that small, northern Alberta City would love to have what we have and only pay the taxes we do.

If taxes are higher in Oak Bay, which it appears they are, well that is the business of those living Oak Bay. If they don’t wish to play those high taxes, they could move to another area. Perhaps the reason their taxes are higher is a desire for more services. As I recall, Oak Bay has lead the charge in building recreation facilities and services for seniors.

It seems to me Amalgamation Victoria is reaching for some pie in the sky that would be impossible to achieve.

6. Question:

I am at a loss for words because of the very idea that we should never change anything because it might cause some disruption is untenable.  What would be wrong with actually studying the issue?

Note: A similar comment came from another supporter: “The issue of amalgamation has never been properly looked at in this region since 1965. The cost for the public to do it on their own is too expensive and we do not the access to the details needed to be accurate enough.”

Response:  There is not a single thing wrong with studying the question and subsequent to your posing the question, I came across a number papers researched and written by Dr. Robert L. Bish, who, at the time was a Professor at University of Victoria School of Public Administration. The papers answer almost every question I had on the topic.    Amalgamation: Searching for the truth:

7. Question:

On a broader level, I find it odd you are willing to forgo the monies available from the Federal and Provincial governments to large cities whose populations and political capital justify major infrastructure grants. Why?

Answer:

I am pleased the question was asked about the Federal and Provincial ‘transfer of money’. I will limit my answer to four cases, three in BC and one in Ontario.

a) Sewage Treatment

Leading up to the Olympics our Premier, Gordon Campbell, travelled to Washington State to do a little promoting.  He was hosted by Washington State Governor, Christine Gregoire. More importantly, the Governor was a former director of the Washington State Ecology Department. YouChristine Gregoire guessed it, the Governor was very upset about the Capital of BC dumping sewage in those pristine waters shared with her state.

Our Premier was given an ultimatum, if he wanted the Governors support in promoting the Olympics, he better get things shaped up on the home front or he would be out in the cold.

Well, our Premier caught the next Harbour Air flight to Victoria, called up his Environment Minister, Barry Penner, and told him to get busy and clean things up.  The Minister started to ask a few questions, but the Premier cut him off, saying he wanted action, not questions. A short time later Victoria and the other CRD members were saddled with a billion dollar sewage treatment system.

There was no assessment, no consulting with scientists, no pressing environment issue, just a Premier who wanted to garner support for the Olympics. Leading scientists told him it was not necessary, even environmentalists shook their head. Of all the things that could be done to help keep the ocean clean, sewage treatment for Greater Victoria was the least important. Didn’t matter. The sewage treatment has now been spun so hard, that everyone has forgotten it was a knee-jerk response in the first instance. (Largest Boondoggle in Canadian History).

b) Harmonized Sales Tax

Well, our Premier wasn’t done yet.  After being re-elected, he announced harmonization of the HST and GST.  No matter what he said before the election, that was then and this is now. Things change and no, Governor Gregoire was not involved. The harmonized tax kicked in on July 1, 2010. Along with sewage treatment, these would be the Premiers greatest achievements. It did not matter these were just his HSTideas of how to make the world a better place. Perhaps the harmonized tax was a bit easier for businesses, so they jumped on board and spent millions changing over to the new collection system.  Government people were laid off or transferred. Departments were closed. The Feds ponied up a large chunk of money and the case was closed. Almost.

A retired Premier, a rather surely, petulant guy who still had a burr up his bottom over how he was treated when he was Premier, decided to use the ‘democratic’ process to get even. A year later, in a referendum, the PST/GST merger gets un-mergered and bingo, the citizens of BC were on the hook for $5,000,000,000 and change. On that note the Premier decided to retire.

c) The Teachers Dispute

Ah, we are not finished with the transfer of payments. More than a decade back, a Minister in Premier Campbell’s government, decided she did not like a few sections in the teacher’s contract she had just signed, so inked them out. Well, the teachers, the ‘surly’ lot they are, took exception this and the government found themselves in court.

Over a period of twelve years, the government lost, lost again, then lost again. Premier Campbell was long gone, but that Minister who startedFassbender on Teacher Dispute the whole boondoggle was, by some miracle, elected Premier and the fight is still in the courts. The Government seems destined to lose and the costs could be staggering. Estimates go as high as $1,000,000,000 if the government fails to reach an out of court settlement. This figure, of course, is the cumulative effect of twelve years of fending off the teachers after the Minister of the day made a huge mistake back in 2002.  So much for the transfer of payments argument.

d) The Toronto Experience (from a 2008 article in the Toronto Star)

The amalgamation of Toronto was the sole prerogative of one man, Premier Mike Harris.  Come hell or high water he was going to see that amalgamation take place no matter what the people thought or whether it would accomplish anything worthwhile. After he formed the mega-city, he began offloading service costs to that new entity. For better or worse (most would say worse) Toronto became a mega-city with mega-problems, not the least of which was getting a Mayor who just wouldn’t go away.

Following is an excerpt from that long article in the Toronto Star:

“Against great odds and in the face of trenchant hostility, the amalgamation of seven governments into one unified Toronto has survived its first decade. Barely.

Happy anniversary, megacity.

Never has a forced union been so universally detested and excoriated – every outflow, offspring or offshoot smeared with the “bastard” tag: unwanted, unloved, unappreciated. And yet, alive, if not well.

For those landed here after Jan. 1, 1998, it’s impossible to comprehend the raw hatred that greeted the singularly most unpopular decision of a singularly most unpopular politician, one Mike Harris.

Led by former Toronto mayor John Sewell and his group Citizens for Local Democracy (C4LD), the opposition exploded, from 30 allies huddled at Lawrence Park Collegiate to more than 1,000 at weekly meetings.

The cities about to be banished to the woodpile of history held referendums on the same day. The province promised to ignore the results. Some 76 percent of voters opposed the merger, prompting the Star headline: “Mega No to mega-city.”

Read Further: The Toronto Star

9. Final Remarks

Isn’t it amazing how a few people in positions of power can accomplish such things if they set their minds to it? I believe that of all things that concern people about amalgamation in this area, it is the fear that a handful of power brokers will eventually come to control the system. We might elect them, we might even like some of them, but we also know what can happen when a few of those officials go rogue as cited in the four examples above. It can lead to disaster. I sense that people in the CRD want the ability to affect outcomes and the bigger a system, the more that ability is degraded. The thirteen Mayors and Councils in the CRD may be exactly what they need to provide at least a small shield against poor outcomes.

Link to the Original Post: Amalgamation in Greater Victoria

October 23, 2014:  A friend linked me to an interesting study conducted at Western University that revealed the costs of Municipal Government increased rapidly after a number of forced amalgamations in the late 1990s.  Link here to the January 2014 Toronto Star Report 

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Comments

  • Andrew Dunn

    May 14, 2019 |

    Thank you so much for all your help thus far Harold, aka. Tractor guy! I could not have done without you!

  • Harold McNeill

    April 25, 2019 |

    I find it interesting to contemplate how a small community evolves in general isolation from the rest of the world. We have a similar situation in the northern communities in Canada to which access is limited. The inclusion of the world wide web and mass media has changed things, but these communities are still left pretty much to their own devices when it comes to personal interaction.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 19, 2019 |

    Hi Dave. Not that I am aware and I have a fairly comprehensive family tree for the McNeill side of the family. I will pull it up and scan. Cheers, Harold. Great chatting with you and I will give Ben a nudge.

  • Dave Cassels

    March 16, 2019 |

    Were you related to Guy McNeill who owned the Bruin Inn in St. Albert in the late 40’s or early 50’s? Guy was a close friend of my father-in-law who was the first President of the Royal Glenora Club. My phone number is 780 940 1175. Thank you.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 15, 2019 |

    So glad you found the story and enjoyed. Indeed, they were memorable times. I did a fair amount of searching but never managed to contact any of the Murffit kids. However, it was neat to make contact with the Colony and someone I knew from back in the day. I have enjoyed writing these stories from back in the 1940s and 50s and have made contact with a lot of friends from those early years. I will give you a call over the weekend. Cheers, Harold

  • Yvonne (Couture) Richardson

    March 7, 2019 |

    I enjoyed your story. I too, lived in Pibroch in 1951, as my parents owned the hotel there. I was a very close friend of Bonnie Murfitt at the time. I moved to Edmonton in 1952, however, and have not seen her since. I would like to be in touch with you to talk about your story. My email is listed above and my phone number is 780-475-3873.

  • Laureen Kosch/Patry

    March 5, 2019 |

    I grew up in Pibroch and would not trade those years for anything. “ Kids don’t know how to play anymore” Never was a truer statement made. During the summer we were out the door by 8am, home for lunch, and back when it got dark. For the most part our only toys were our bikes and maybe a baseball mitt. I will never forget the times when all the kids got together in “Finks field” for a game of scrub baseball. Everybody was welcome, kids from 8 to 18. I didn’t know it then but I guess I had a childhood most dream of. Drove thru town last summer. It all looked a lot smaller.

  • Harold McNeill

    January 13, 2019 |

    Well, my dear, it’s that time again. How the years fly by and the little ones grow but try as you may you will have a hard time catching up to your Daddy. Lots of love young lady and may your day be special
    Love, Dad

  • Harold McNeill

    January 5, 2019 |

    Guess what? My response went to the Spam folder. Hmm, do you suppose the system is trying to tell me something?

  • Harold McNeill

    January 5, 2019 |

    Thanks, Terrance. Your comment came through but went to the Spam folder. Have pulled it out and approved. Can you send another on this post to see if you name is now removed from Spam? I’m not sure why it does that. Cheers, Harold