Let’s talk about the A-word: Amalgamation

Amalgamation in the CRD

Public discourse about full or partial amalgamation of the 13 municipalities in the Capital Regional District always seems to be bubbling just below the surface. I’m frequently asked about my view on it, and I want to be transparent about where I stand.

I applaud any critical review and evaluation of the way we govern ourselves; I just wish this debate was more informed and constructive, and less polarized. Granted, we are operating in a void of information about just what amalgamation in the region could look like, or mean in concrete terms. Until we undertake more fact finding and articulate a clear vision for what our region would look like with fewer municipalities, in my view, it is irresponsible to pick a side in the amalgamation debate. That said, I’ve given consideration to all sides of this issue based on the current state of knowledge, and I’m happy to share my analysis.

I was fortunate to have an opportunity to study amalgamation and local government structure and governance during my Master’s of Public Administration. I learned that counter-intuitively, amalgamation has not yielded cost savings in any other Canadian jurisdictions, for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this particular update. Notwithstanding this, there are other potential advantages of full or partial amalgamation in the region, such as:

  • increased leverage or clout (with respect to negotiating with other levels of government or attracting investment),
  • less red tape for the business community, and
  • an ability to better integrate land-use and transportation planning.

The importance of these considerations should not be underestimated. I believe the last one is especially crucial: traffic congestion is fast becoming our region’s most critical challenge. It has huge and widespread costs, such as reduced quality of life, increased greenhouse gas emissions and poorer air quality, and reduced efficiency and competitiveness. However, given the pace at which the amalgamation discussion is unfolding, in my view, we cannot wait to see if/when it proceeds before we address it our transportation challenges. I would instead advocate for a regional transportation authority to address this urgent gap, which has precedent in BC and does not preclude future amalgamation scenarios. I am personally disappointed that the CRD is not pursuing this promising approach more aggressively.

Amalgamation: The view from Saanich

If amalgamation were on the table, I would be concerned about the fate of rural Saanich and our valuable agricultural lands. More than likely, urban issues would consume all the oxygen and resources. As we all know, our extensive semi-rural neighbourhoods are also very unique and account for much of Saanich’s distinctive character and landscape diversity.

I would also be concerned about impacts to our municipality’s financial well-being, and by extension – our residents’ and businesses’. Due to prudent commitments by past Councils to aggressively pay down our infrastructure deficit (and notwithstanding that this resolve appears to be eroding), we are in a much better position than some neighbouring municipalities to maintain our assets and hence our service levels in Saanich. This financial resilience is a valuable asset that we should all be proud of, and should strive to maintain for the benefit of future residents. Amalgamation with other municipalities is likely to mean that Saanich residents will have to assume responsibility for the financial liabilities of others, despite the fact that we personally have already incurred the costs associated with getting our own books in order. These considerations should give us all some pause as we contemplate amalgamation scenarios and implications.

Moving forward

I am receptive to the amalgamation discussion, but we need more objective information to have a serious debate. The discussion to date has already been fruitful; municipalities in the region are increasingly cognizant of the need to improve service coordination and reduce redundancy. The Province has identified additional opportunities for service sharing in their recently released report on the CRD. Things are improving; however, more must be done.

Since it is beyond the mandate of any one municipality and the CRD, I am in favour of the provincial government undertaking a more holistic review of governance in the CRD, to include consideration of amalgamation options. And provided it is warranted by the tide of informed public opinion, I would also be in favour of following the path best supported by democracy[i]. The recent citizens’ assembly process in Duncan - North Cowichan provides an excellent template for us to ensure any actions we take on this front are widely supported and in our collective best interest.

[i] BC’s Community Charter prohibits forced amalgamation of municipalities by the Province: http://www.bclaws.ca/civix/document/id/complete/statreg/03026_09#section279