A firm headed by former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister George Abbott will spearhead discussions on integrating — but not amalgamating — municipal services and governance in Greater Victoria.
The provincial government announced Wednesday that it has awarded a consulting contract worth up to $95,000 to two companies — Abbott’s Circle Square Solutions and Urban Systems.
The companies, which submitted a joint proposal through B.C. Bid, will work with the 13 municipal governments in the capital region on “exploring ways to integrate services and governance,” the province said in a statement.
B.C. Community Minister Peter Fassbender said the consultants will identify the integrated services that already exist, suggest what else could be done, and chart a potential path forward.
“I mean, a lot of people are saying, ‘Will this lead to a full study on amalgamation?’ And I have clearly said that is not a criterion and we’ll see what comes out of the work that is done,” he said.
The idea of studying some form of amalgamation was put to the electorate in eight of the 13 municipalities in the 2014 municipal election.
Seventy-five per cent of the voters supported the idea.
But Fassbender said talk about amalgamation “creates all kinds of angst on the part of some people” wary of what that means.
“So rather than presuming that this is going to lead to that, let’s just take it one step at a time,” he said.
He acknowledged that taxpayers want assurances that they are getting value for their money.
“So I think this process will help identify the good work that is already going on — because there is lots — and the opportunities that may be ahead and what those might look like.”
Abbott, who was once the B.C. minister responsible for municipal affairs, said he is looking forward to the study.
“I think it’s going to be an interesting project and, hopefully, it will be a really useful one for the 13 municipalities in the capital region and for the [Capital Regional District], and, of course, for the taxpayers of the region,” he said.
Abbott noted that Circle Square Solutions includes Bob de Faye and Dale Wall, both former deputies in the Community Ministry, and Chris Trumpy, a former deputy finance minister.
Wall will serve as project leader.
The consultants will meet with officials in each of the municipalities and the CRD to get their input, Abbott said.
“We’ll also be looking at the experience elsewhere in B.C.,” he said.
“I think there’s a good deal that we can learn from how other municipalities and regional districts have worked together in other parts of British Columbia.
“I mean, there’s no exact parallel, no exact place like the CRD. But, notwithstanding that, I think there’s much we can learn from how others have dealt with service delivery and service integration.”
The consultants expect to release a report this fall, but Abbott confirmed that it’s unlikely to include much about amalgamation.
“The project itself is around service integration and the municipal and regional governance of those services as they are being delivered,” he said. “The issue of whether municipalities can or should amalgamate is beyond the scope of what we’re doing here.
“Ultimately, the issue of whether one or more municipalities might amalgamate is, on its own, a complex and intense question to be considered.”
Abbott said that if municipalities in the capital region wanted to pursue amalgamation, “that would be a separate and distinct project from the one we’re undertaking.”
Tony Heemskerk, president of the non-profit group Amalgamation Yes, expressed disappointment Wednesday at the project’s tight timelines and relatively narrow scope.
“We don’t want to end up necessarily with more of the same,” he said.
“It’s very nice to, I guess, do it better, but we think amalgamation is something that should be on the table and that they should be looking at. … We’re hoping that they’ll do a lot more work and they’ll do the kind of amalgamation study that I think the public is really looking for.”