Municipal Amalgamation or Municipal De-democratization?

In 1996, the Province of Nova Scotia undertook an amalgamation of the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth, the town of Bedford, and Halifax county – jurisdictions that in 1996 held 36% of the Province’s population and 45% of the province’s GDP (Nova Scotia Statistical Review, 2000) to create the Halifax Regional Municipality.

The residents of these communities, which in many cases are more than one hundred years older than the province or nation they reside in, had their cherished municipal governments – typically the level of government most accessible, most accountable, closest to the people and most democratic (also known as the subsidiary principle) – dissolved without so much as a non-binding plebiscite from the Province to indicate support or consent on behalf of the citizenry*.

This article serves to explore the rationale behind the decision to amalgamate the Halifax region, to examine other notable municipal amalgamations, to determine whether amalgamations are a good way to increase municipal governmental efficiency and if they are the best vehicle to realize economies of scale. Are there models of municipal governance that might better serve the stated goals of municipal amalgamation (namely, higher efficiency and reduced costs, but also equalized service delivery) without the insult of forced, top-down amalgamation?

* James Vaughan, President of the Halifax Homeowners Association, called for a plebiscite to be held on the matter of the proposed amalgamation. Council authorized a letter to the Minister of Municipal Affairs to advise that Halifax City Council was prepared to conduct a plebiscite on amalgamation providing the Province was prepared to accept the results of that plebiscite. There is no record of a response from the Department of Municipal Affairs. (Halifax City Council Minutes, 1994/95)

Nova Scotia’s amalgamation of the communities in the Halifax region wasn’t the first municipal amalgamation in Canada. Canada wasn’t a nation that stood alone or first in line in having jurisdictions that pursued municipal amalgamations. Andrew Sancton in “Merger Mania” (2000) credits Britain in the late 1950s with the dawn of local government reform among liberal democracies.

More than one royal commission (Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London, 1957-60 – also known as the Herbert Report, and Radcliffe-Maud a decade later in 1968) was undertaken to examine (and then implement) amalgamation in London’s boroughs and to create the Greater London Council. Radcliffe-Maud in 1968 would deal with other amalgamative possibilities throughout the rest of Britain. Sancton states that this Redcliffe-Maud commission:

“…is significant in many ways, one of which it sponsored research relating to the relationship between local government size and efficiency for various local government functions. Its own statistical research did not demonstrate that services provided by existing larger governments were more efficiently provided than by existing smaller ones.” (Sancton, 2000)

Unfortunately for the citizens of the Halifax region, it appears efficiency gains (or lack thereof in practice) resulting from municipal amalgamations have been long documented, but long ignored by Nova Scotian government officials. Two Nova Scotian commissions with similar aims as Redcliffe-Maud (The Royal Commission on Education, Public Services, and Provincial-Municipal Relations in 1974, The Task Force on Local Government in 1992) arrived at the opposite conclusion, urging a single amalgamated municipality.

Per Sancton (State of the Federation, p. 124) there was little public interest in the issue of amalgamation beforehand and none of the municipalities, even the City of Halifax itself, were pushing for it. Bish sums up these unilateral provincial intrusions into municipal governance quite succinctly.

“…some provincial governments are imposing an intellectual fashion of the nineteenth century on monolithic government organization and central control” (Bish 2001: Summary)

Although there have been many municipal amalgamations over the past few decades in Britain and in much of Northern Europe, the European Union’s European Charter of Local Self- Government prohibits amalgamations as pursued in Canada stating:

“Changes in local authority boundaries shall not be made without prior consultation of the local communities concerned, possibly by means of a referendum where this is permitted by statute.”

Similarly, the United Nations, in Article 20 and 21 of its Universal Declaration of Human rights states:

“No one may be compelled to belong to an association” and “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”.

Both EU and UN conventions, therefore, affirm local governments as valuable, they aim to protect these lower-level governments from the exact same dictatorial, amalgamative actions popular in Nova Scotia, and indeed throughout much of Canada and other commonwealth nations like Britain and more recently, Australia (ABC, 2016).

The United States, on the other hand, has a unique system of government, from the Federal level to the municipal, and stands in contrast to the Canadian model on many fronts (Sancton, 2000). Cities in the United States in many cases are protected by State Constitutions, a stark contrast to Canada’s style of Federalism and its constitutional arrangement. Canada has no federal constitutional recognition of cities and municipalities, at least not in a way that confers many rights to them (Sancton, 2004). Amalgamations are difficult if not next to impossible in the United States because of these conferred rights.

The last American municipal amalgamation was New York City in 1898 – any amalgamations since (of which there have been a few, notable is Indianapolis’ Unigov) have been voluntary, bottom-up affairs, with direct democratic approval necessary not only for the amalgamation itself but also for the charter of the newly minted municipality. Indeed, although New York City was the result of an amalgamation – something imposed, some would say suggested by its state government – it proceeded only because of the success of a popular ballot referendum. Procedural entanglements such as referenda and citizen-led balloting, among other democratic tools, ensure that amalgamations in the United States are unpopular tools, the last resort for cash-strapped state and municipal governments.

Although it wasn’t Canada’s first amalgamation (Winnipeg and its 11 surrounding municipalities hold that title and were amalgamated in 1972), Toronto has the highest profile of any amalgamated Canadian city. Toronto was a single tier city until 1954, when the Ontario government passed the Metropolitan Toronto Act, creating a two-tiered city (Slack, Bird p. 16). This Act established an upper metropolitan level and a lower level that contained the City of Toronto and 12 other suburban municipalities.

This was not yet an amalgamation. Each of these municipal units had its own representatives and mayors. Indeed, Toronto’s 1954 reorganization of municipal government was about sharing services and ensuring equal levels of services were provided throughout the metropolitan area. As in many cities of the time (and still to this day), Toronto suburbs were “property-tax poor”, in that they lack the major businesses and industries that would typically ensure a solid financial foundation. This metropolitan Toronto council eventually took on police services, waste disposal and licensing, services traditionally provided at the lower level.

This two-tiered model appeared to work quite well, but pressure began to build on it in the 1970s with fresh suburban development hopping outside of the metropolitan boundaries and bypassing municipal attempts at revenue capture. The province was slow to respond, with a GTA task force finally established to tackle the issue decades later, in 1995. Yet, as Slack and Bird point out (2013) the Province of Ontario seemed to have trouble taking its own advice when it comes to amalgamations.

“Despite these repeated recommendations by provincial commissions on the need to coordinate service delivery between Toronto and its surrounding regions, the provincial government chose instead to amalgamate the municipalities within Toronto. The stated rationale was to save taxpayers’ money by replacing six lower-tier governments and the metropolitan level of government with one municipal government—the new City of Toronto. Since in Canadian municipal affairs provinces get what provinces want, the result was that a new unified City of Toronto was created by provincial fiat on January 1, 1998.”

Across Ontario, between 1981 and 2011, municipal amalgamations decreased the number of municipalities from 850 to 445. Toronto, just like Halifax, is a creature of its province, regardless of its size and influence. The relationship between province and municipality is not a relationship of equals in Canada, even when the province and municipality you’re talking about is Ontario and Toronto. It is a relationship of higher order government, and lower order government. Master and servant.

More recently, Quebec proceeded with an amalgamation of Montreal and 27 surrounding municipalities in 2002. Unique within Canada, Montreal’s amalgamation eventually failed and led to a de-amalgamation of sorts in 2004 when fifteen former municipalities on Montreal island voted to leave. Montreal was also unique in comparison to Toronto and Halifax in that Montreal Mayor Pierre Bourque was long advocating for amalgamation to occur (Sancton, State of the Federation 2004).

Theoretically, municipal amalgamations are supposed to help provinces and neighboring municipal jurisdictions control costs – both from “over-government” (in regards to the numerous councilors, mayors, and bureaucracies contained within multiple cities) as well as through economies of scale – the relationship between municipal operating costs and size; are larger municipalities able to achieve lower costs?

The idea that combining two police departments into one for example – going from two chiefs to one, from two separate administrations to one – not only saves money but improves services rendered to a city’s citizens; was a very attractive one at least to some of those in positions of power in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, not only did the amalgamated police departments of the Halifax region not save money, it appears service delivery and efficiency has also suffered in comparison to previous institutional arrangements.

“…amalgamation of police services in the Halifax region is associated with higher costs (in real-dollar terms), lower numbers of sworn officers, lower service levels, no real change in crime rates, and higher workloads for sworn officers.” (McDavid, 2002)

McDavid goes on to note that citizen surveys corroborated this view and that citizens felt less safe after amalgamation than before it. So, the citizens weren’t on board with the province’s plans to amalgamate, but they also weren’t given a chance to give their input in any democratic sense. In the feedback residents of the Halifax Regional Municipality did give, through surveys and polls, they remained hostile to the idea of regional governance and pessimistic of any benefit, budgetary or otherwise (Poel, 2000).

As it turns out, citizens of the Halifax area had good reason to be pessimistic. None of the predictions of provincial officials that an amalgamated government would save money came to pass. Costs increased significantly after amalgamation for a host of reasons, including wages, write-offs from the old municipal units, and transitional costs which ballooned to $35 million (Sancton, 2004).

In addition to unrealized financial savings, there has been a sharp downward trend in participation within Halifax’s municipal elections, since amalgamation. Throughout North America, declining participation rates for elections at all levels have been a worrying trend for many. Did amalgamation accelerate this trend? Certainly, the kind of resentment that leads to a disconnect from the political process is not unknown in forcefully amalgamated jurisdictions (Zimmerbauer, 2012).

Per Thomas Holbrook and Aaron Weinschenk, voter turnout in mayoral elections is driven by the configuration of political institutions in a city – further reinforcing the idea that the method of municipal governance matters, and is key to engagement and perceptions of representation (Holbrook, Weinschenk, 2013).

Regional planning is another reason often used to support amalgamations, development can often piggyback over greenbelts or other municipal controls, and so a regional planning district with greater authority is thought to help control and direct growth in economically feasible ways. Unfortunately, in Halifax, amalgamation did little (if anything) to re-direct city growth.

By 2014, only 16% of new development was being directed to the traditional centers of Dartmouth and Halifax, while the clear majority was occurring in exurbs and suburbs up to an hour from the downtown core (Stantec Consulting, 2013). This has enormous cost implications, in the Billions of dollars for the municipality in the long term; property taxes in these exurban and suburban areas will never produce the necessary tax revenue to counter the investments necessary in water and sewerage, transport services, police, fire and public transit services. (Stantec Consulting, 2013)

There are many ways to structure a municipal government, and there are many examples within Canada, let alone those within North America and around the world. Regional planning concerns and budgetary concerns are of course very important issues that need to be addressed. However, it seems that Nova Scotia, following Ontario’s lead, decided that the people most affected by the changes to municipal governance needn’t be consulted. This strikes me as a serious error in judgment. HRM seems to be a symptom of a larger problem in Nova Scotia, and that is by design, a lack of engagement is present in political affairs through limited opportunities for direct democracy.

Often the concern about planning in the Halifax region, as with other amalgamated municipal governments, is that there is no effective accountability construct for decision making to reside within (Spicer & Found, 2016). Halifax council and policy development appear to have become an echo chamber full of pre-cognition, prior assessments, and slow walks to inevitability. Halifax Regional Municipality was created by fiat and not because of any pressing external impetus for change, like a budgetary crisis or extreme differences in service levels between competing municipalities. The impetus in Nova Scotia’s case per Sancton was that, absent any political pressures on either side of the issue, it was a perfect time for autonomous state action.

Amalgamation occurred because it was a possibility because it was a legacy item for provincial leaders, and during a time of financial downloads from higher order governments (federal and provincial) provided a way to appear to be saving money and creating higher structural efficiency.

Dartmouthians having lived through amalgamation, will always identify as such. However, serious concerns remain within a jurisdiction where one’s city, a community more than 100 years older than the province or country in which it inhabits, can be dissolved without so much as a non-binding plebiscite. An action that stands as antithetical to respect for the citizens of that city, to urban planning and engagement, to the very nature of our democracy.
There is hope that in the future Nova Scotia will chart a new course away from reductive solutions to municipal issues, and towards an evidence-based view. In a province that recently celebrated “D250” – or 250 years of democracy, a reference to Joseph Howe and his responsible governance “revolution” – it seems irresponsible to say the least that the Province of Nova Scotia unilaterally dissolved highly cherished third level governments.
A two-tiered municipality – one which contains a resource sharing entity as its top level, and municipal units below, as Toronto had after 1954, and as Vancouver and Montreal enjoy now – seems to be a reasonable middle ground between representation and service delivery, provincial control and municipal autonomy.
Whether Nova Scotia, itself provincially insulated from democratic change; with one vote once every five years and only for a local representative as the only democratic outlet available to citizens; ever decides to forgo its antiquated policy of dictatorial actions towards the level of government where the rubber meets the road – municipalities – remains to be seen.

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