As discussion around amalgamation grows, regionalized services are increasingly seen as a good place to begin implementing the idea.
Across the Capital Region, there are four police departments, three RCMP detachments, 13 fire departments and a transit commission dominated by urban representatives.
During the half-hour drive from North Saanich to downtown Victoria, three separate 911 call centres are responsible for emergency dispatch.
“We could, in theory, dispatch for the whole peninsula by adding one more console to our (communication) centre, but there seems to be a fear to push the discussion,” said Victoria police Chief Const. Jamie Graham, a vocal proponent for a single regional police force.
Several integrated police units operate in the Capital Region, including the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team, a homicide investigation unit and a domestic violence unit, the latter formed in the wake of a 2007 murder-suicide case in Oak Bay.
But the units rely on a shared funding model, which presents an inherent problem each year as budget evaluations begin and cities look for cost savings.
“As has been shown recently (when VicPD pulled one of two officers from the domestic violence unit), if I don’t think it’s working well for me, I’ll pull out and that leaves the other agencies in a lurch, which isn’t fair,” Graham said.
Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, an opponent of municipal amalgamation, has shepherded a year of frustrating negotiations around regionalized police services, both with the B.C. Justice Ministry and the Victoria Police Board. (In June 2012, Esquimalt was forced to stick with VicPD services, despite its desire to save money by contracting the township’s policing to the RCMP.)
But as Victoria and Esquimalt near completion of a framework policing agreement, Desjardins is singing a decidedly more optimistic tune, in hopes other municipalities will buy in.
“If we are able to reach an agreement, then there’s a huge opportunity to go forward and be a model for further regionalization,” she said.
The fear is that every municipality outside Victoria and Esquimalt would lose service and pay more under a regional police force. But Graham said the framework agreement may be able to woo other municipalities with an easy cost-sharing template that would prevent ballooning property tax bills.
“There is also this never-ending fear, I think most unfairly, that if we become a regional force, other officers will be sucked into the downtown core to deal with problems, but that’s simply not true,” he said.
While Victoria struggles with its disproportionate expenses brought on by core-city syndrome, the region’s fire departments use mutual-aid agreements to balance and co-ordinate coverage across the region.
“If there’s an issue, we call each other up and have that discussion,” said Lt.-Insp. Brad Sifert of the Victoria Fire Department.
Sifert and other fire prevention officers hold monthly meetings to discuss recent fires and public safety issues, an example of playing well together, he said.
In 2011, Colwood and View Royal inked a progressive automatic aid agreement, where resources are shared without having to go through formal request channels. The model could prove viable for other adjacent municipalities in the future, Sifert said.
Victoria-Beacon Hill MLA Carole James said the community-led discussions around regionalized services and amalgamation is long overdue.
Last week, she threw her support behind Amalgamation Yes, a grassroots group lobbying for a non-binding vote on amalgamation to gauge public support on the issue.
“It’s long overdue to give the public a voice in all of this,” James said. “There have been discussions about the cost savings … but nothing based on best practices or facts.”
Liberal MLA Ida Chong and Green Party leader Jane Sterk have also said they support a discussion on amalgamation, as long as the majority of the population is in favour of it.
Desjardins, who counts herself among the naysayers for the time being, said municipalities will likely fiercely oppose taking on debt from other communities, but anything that saves money is going to be an easier sell.
“If there’s ever been an opportune time to have this discussion, it’s likely to be in the next little while,” she said.
Consistent transit funding critical: commission chair
While emergency service providers dance around regionalized services, the jury is still out on the best way to make the Victoria Regional Transit Commission more accountable to taxpayers and the outlying municipalities.
Right now, the commission is made up of seven municipal politicians who are appointed by the B.C. transportation minister. Both Saanich and Victoria have two elected officials each on the commission, while the remaining three positions are filled by mayors and councillors from other Capital Region communities on a rotating basis.
Last August, an independent review panel recommended changes to the urban-weighted commission, including opening the door to Capital Regional District control of transit or expanding to nine appointed members.
“As we move forward to big investments like rapid transit and so on, we need very broad community support before we engage in that kind of expenditure,” said Saanich Coun. Susan Brice, commission chair.
Regardless of the governance model, she said, the commission must be able to rely on steady funding beyond property tax revenue to create a functional regional transit system. “Just having another representative on the commission will not increase the dollars. You can put any level of service out there but you have to find ways to fund it.”
Brice will hold talks with transportation ministry staff next week to discuss options for the commission. Meanwhile, B.C. Transit is expected to make public its short-term recommendations to improve rapid transit by the end of April.
Steps to amalgamation
1. Preliminary: At least two municipalities approach provincial government with intention to study amalgamation.
2. Committee: Local governments form a committee to oversee preparation of a restructure study and manage public consultation.
3. Study: Province hires consultant for formal restructure study. Report would offer objective information on financial impacts, implications for local services and political representation, etc.
4. Decision: Local government committee chooses whether or not to hold a referendum on amalgamation. A simple majority vote to approve amalgamation, in each affected municipality, would be needed to move discussion forward.
5. Implementation: Province pays for transition board to restructure local government and adopt best practices. Local governments would remain intact during this period, which could take several years.
– Province of British Columbia
Links to previous instalments of Black Press' series on amalgamation: