Comment: A bigger municipality isn’t better, just bigger

The idea of amalgamating 13 Capital Regional District municipalities into one big city seems appealing at first. The simplicity of a multipurpose pocket knife also sounds good at first, until you try to use one to change a flat tire. Managing urban life is complicated.

Municipal amalgamation has been tried before. In Toronto and Montreal, residents and the business community are still waiting for savings that simply didn’t materialize. In many other amalgamated regions around the world, small business owners are also waiting for savings, in longer queues for building permits.

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For taxpayers in big merged cities, the new normal is big bureaucracy and ill-informed call-centre attendants.

In research documented in my book Time for Cities, I analyze how the redistribution of powers from the federal and provincial governments to municipalities, rather than amalgamating municipalities, would reduce duplication and improve prosperity. I also tell the troubling story of mergers and de-mergers in Ontario and Quebec.

Amalgamating Canadian cities left those municipalities’ inadequate property-taxation system intact. It left bigger cities competing for the same handouts from governments. It left the same federal and provincial bureaucrats analyzing grant applications and choosing whether the community where you live will be one of the losers this year (for some programs, 85 per cent of applicants are unsuccessful). It left the same city staff wasting time writing grant applications, most of which will be rejected. We should be outraged that our taxes are being used to support a wasteful political handout system.

From a business perspective, a merger is a delicate process. Star CEOs have written books about the trials and tribulations of mergers and how they managed, step by painstaking step, to harmonize the productivity of two formerly separate companies.

Try merging 13 private corporations.

If there is a CRD amalgamation referendum, the region better be aware of the unavoidable disruption of services that will ensue as policies get rewritten and the staff of 13 former cities slowly adapt to working together.

Other books dissect in detail, autopsy-style, failed business mergers. Learning from these lessons, the region better be prepared for failure. The incredibly damaging de-mergers that took place in Montreal following the 2002 merger of 28 former municipalities resulted in utter chaos. More than a decade later, Montreal’s merger and partial de-merger are still a haphazard work in progress.

In most corporate mergers, true efficiencies are only found when entire product lines are dropped. In municipal mergers, however, rather than being willing to see services disappear, residents expect more from their newly amalgamated city. Research shows that they are sorely disappointed on that front, as service becomes less personal and both the number of complaints and the time it takes for city staff to deal with their concerns climb sharply.

Of course, Victoria (population 80,017) and Saanich (population 109,752) are bigger municipalities, but each has a unique heritage, different issues and distinct identities, just like their neighbouring communities.

The population of Greater Victoria is bigger than Prince Edward Island’s, so should the region become a province? Jurisdiction and amalgamation on the basis of numbers alone makes little sense.

CRD municipalities already collaborate in the joint delivery of several services. A benefit of the amalgamation debate is that it will encourage municipal leaders to look at more opportunities to voluntarily work together across municipal boundaries.

Decisions on collaboration agreements should be based on measurable economies of scale and a valid business case, not ideology.

“Bigger is better” is pure ideology.

Gaetan Royer has held executive positions with the cities of Surrey and Whitehorse, and was city manager for the City of Port Moody for 11 years. He also managed metropolitan planning for Metro Vancouver from 2011 to 2013.

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