If a road sign greeted visitors coming from the Swartz Bay ferry terminal offered an accurate picture of how many municipalities one can visit

If a road sign greeted visitors coming from the Swartz Bay ferry terminal offered an accurate picture of how many municipalities one can visit

A Region United Part 2: Greater Victoria amalgamation must be grassroots

Nova Scotia forced Halifax to merge in 1996, but B.C. requires an effort led by local governments

Gloria McCluskey’s tried to block as much of 1996 from her memory as possible.

As a resident of Dartmouth, she was upset when the Nova Scotia government mandated her city to amalgamate with Halifax, Bedford and Halifax County under the banner of fiscal responsibility. But as the mayor of Dartmouth at the time, she was furious.

“I didn’t want to be a part of it. I didn’t like what happened. I felt that Dartmouth was going to be a loser in all of this,” said McCluskey, now 81.

“Residents still ask me, ‘Can we go back?’ Of course we can’t go back; we can’t afford to go back. We work and make the best of it, but Dartmouth still gets short-changed.”

At the time, Dartmouth was the Saanich or Langford equivalent of metropolitan Halifax. While known as a bedroom community of the nearby big city, it had its own burgeoning economic generators and a solid population base.

It came as a shock to McCluskey that no one – municipal politicians and the region’s residents alike – had a say in the fact that amalgamation was happening, ultimately made official on April 1, 1996.

At the time, amalgamation wasn’t really on anyone’s radar, according to a former journalist who covered the merger for the now-defunct Halifax Daily News.

It’s a much different story in Greater Victoria, where amalgamation is a regular topic of conversation during discussions surrounding political red tape, municipal budgets, civic elections or regional services.

“I can remember there being more voices to maintain the status quo – the view being if you expanded it, the response to local issues would be impaired,” recalled reporter Peter McLaughlin. “There was a worry (after amalgamation was announced) things would be diluted – you’d be paying more taxes and get fewer services or less responsive service in your community or your neighbourhood.”

The Nova Scotia government hired Bill Hayward to plan and implement Halifax’s amalgamation. He was chosen because only a couple years earlier the province commissioned him to study whether it was even necessary to amalgamate.

“I looked at what would happen (if the region were to amalgamate) and I said, ‘No, all we need to do is put together three critical services – police, industrial development and water supply,” Hayward said. “I still don’t think that it was necessary to (amalgamate), if those three (services were merged). … It was controversial.”

Controversial would be an understatement if amalgamation were to happen in Greater Victoria.

“Everybody has different ideas. What does amalgamation mean? … Is it political? Is it services? Do we divide up a map?,” said Mat Wright, a co-founder of the Capital Region Municipal Amalgamation Society, known colloquially as Amalgamation Yes.

His organization hopes to engage Greater Victoria residents on the topic of amalgamation, and aims to get a plebiscite on the 2014 municipal ballot.

“I think there’s a general consensus after years of conversation that the current system could be streamlined more cohesively for broader community benefit,” added John Vickers, another Amalgamation Yes co-founder.

Unlike in Nova Scotia, amalgamation can’t be forced upon our region. A decade ago the province removed a portion of the Community Charter that gave them that power. It now requires initiation for amalgamation to come from municipalities.

Vickers says with local politicians all over the map on amalgamation, the only way to get a true snapshot of the region is to put the question to the voting public.

The process to get from the current state to a hybrid model (be it amalgamation or integrated services) would be long and slow.

According to the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, even if there was a non-binding referendum in 2014 to gauge support for some form of amalgamation, any change would require a second public vote, at which time voters would need to know what the proposed government structure would look like.

“If the municipal councils involved agreed that there was enough public support of amalgamation, they could request the Minister to order a restructure vote in each of the municipalities that participated in the process,” a ministry spokesperson said. “In order for amalgamation to take place, the vote would have to be successful in each municipality.”

The jury’s still out on whether the Halifax merger was financially worthwhile.

The cost of amalgamating came in higher than anticipated, due to having to settle union contract disparities, but cost savings were found through finding efficiencies and eliminating redundancies. (Hayward fired 172 staffers, many in management roles.)

Even if a plebiscite isn’t held in 2014, hiring someone like Hayward to study amalgamation’s potential in Greater Victoria would be a logical step – at the very least to examine that original question: Is amalgamation necessary?

 

Merging is hard to do

 

For decades amalgamation talks on a much smaller scale have been happening on the western edge of the CRD.

Metchosin and East Sooke (part of the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area) have looked at the possibility of a merger even prior to Metchosin’s incorporation in 1984.

“It’s always been regarded as a natural fit, and the idea of it is to ensure rural land in perpetuity,” said Metchosin Mayor John Ranns.

The latest series of talks – spurred by development pressures in East Sooke – ended in late 2009, when Metchosin said it’d be best to wait until treaty negotiations with Beecher Bay First Nation are complete. Ranns said some Crown land in Metchosin could become part of the treaty settlement.

Juan de Fuca area director Mike Hicks said he sees pros and cons of amalgamating with Metchosin, but would want to see that decision put out as a referendum.

“The people of East Sooke seem to be fairly content (right now) and I don’t hear it brought up at all,” Hicks said. “If it’s a marriage with no prenups, Metchosin would be looking at it harder than East Sooke. But I don’t know if East Sooke would be a willing bride or not. That’s the reality of amalgamation.”

kslavin@saanichnews.com