Council discusses A-word

It's a topic residents and politicians of Greater Victoria have been talking about for decades — should the 13 municipalities amalgamate?

It’s a topic residents and politicians of Greater Victoria have been talking about for decades — should the region’s 13 municipalities amalgamate?

Now two firms headed by the B.C. government have begun spearheading discussions not on amalgamation, but integrating municipal services and governance in Greater Victoria.

Dubbed the Capital Integrated Services and Governance initiative, the province has spent more than $90,000 for Urban Systems and Circle Square Solutions to consult with the 13 municipal governments in the capital region on “exploring ways to integrate services and governance.”

The team is currently in the first round of discussions and appeared before members of Victoria council on Thursday to introduce their work and listen to perspectives.

Several councillors were quick to throw out the amalgamation word and express their views on the topic. Mayor Lisa Helps asked if amalgamation is completely off the table, if consultants hear from some municipalities that it is desirable.

“I would like some look at not just the cost effective delivery of some services, integration, but what could it look like to have fewer municipalities in the capital region? I think it’s something we have to consider otherwise people are going to say this never got looked at and the question will still go on,” said Helps.

“Everyone’s an expert on amalgamation…but the fact is, we don’t have that expertise in the public realm and I think we need a serious look at that.”

Coun. Jeremy Loveday called amalgamation the “ghost” in the discussion, noting it’s still being treated as if it’s a bad word politicians should avoid talking about.

Coun. Ben Isitt isn’t a supporter of amalgamation, pointing to other communities in Canada where it did not work. There’s no perfect solution, he noted, but the glaring services that cry for integration in the region are police, fire and transportation.

Isitt said he would like to see a single police department for the Capital Regional District that would extend from the top of Galiano Island to Victoria and Oak Bay, out to the Juan de Fuca electoral area and up to the Malahat. Currently the region has seven police departments and each municipality has their own fire department.

“From a standpoint of public safety, but also cost savings, that kind of integrated approach is long overdue,” he said.

“I think we should actively be having those discussions about creating a new service under the authority of the CRD where all police services in the region would be integrated into a new regional police service.”

Greater Victoria has a population of approximately 335,000 people and the region is governed by 91 councillors and mayors. During the municipal election in 2014, Victoria, Esquimalt and six other municipalities had questions on the ballot about reducing the number of municipalities through amalgamation.

In Victoria and Esquimalt, the referendums passed with overwhelming support. Region-wide, about 75 per cent of people voted in favour, but the municipalities were scattered with their questioning. Only Victoria and Langford asked citizens directly if they were interested in amalgamating. In Esquimalt, residents were asked if they were interested in having a study done on amalgamation and looking at options for better service alignment.

The latest initiative is an understanding reached between the region’s municipalities and the province in March. A report will be prepared on how services are currently delivered in the capital region, best practices from other local governments, and the challenges and opportunities associated with various approaches to governance and service integration.

A second round of dialogue with councils will take place in the fall. The province maintains it will not impose an outcome.