Municipal Amalgamation

Paul Eichhorn was right when he said in a column in this newspaper earlier this week the time has come to consider municipal amalgamations that would make a lot more sense on several levels than existing boundaries. For example, instead of wasting time, money and energy, trying to attract development and growth separately, and then arguing about it, an amalgamated, larger municipality (or municipalities) in this area would have a much better chance of building a brighter, more prosperous future. And people living in larger, unified municipalities blending urban service centres and surrounding rural neighbours would be able to share the cost services, from waste disposal to recreational facilities and programs, more fairly and cost-effectively.

I couldn’t agree more. He suggests municipal amalgamation should be a topic of discussion in the current municipal election campaigns in Owen Sound and other area municipalities. At the very least it should be the subject of a referendum in the next round of elections. The time has come, he says.

But with all due respect to Mr. Eichhorn and his well-intentioned, generally sound arguments, I say, don’t hold your breath. The history of municipal relations, and especially the terribly flawed results of the most recent round of municipal restructuring in the Grey-Owen Sound area just over 10 years ago doesn’t bode well for anything right and sensible to happen any time soon.

I’ve been a Grey-Bruce resident for just over 30 years. During most of that time, as a reporter, I followed regional and local municipal politics closely.  From the very beginning I was astonished the Sunset Strip and the hamlet of Springmount with its extensive commercial-industrial development just outside the Owen Sound city limits were not part of the city. They still aren’t, though the reasons why they should be are surely obvious.

The townships “did their part” in the past by merging, Eichhorn wrote. Well, they merged all right, but they fell far short of doing their part in providing their share of leadership in developing and implementing a municipal re-structuring plan for the Grey-Owen Sound area that would have laid the foundation for a brighter economic future for everyone. Instead, the plan drawn up in the late 1990s by a Grey County-led committee put new municipal walls around Owen Sound. Yes, the number of municipalities in the county was reduced, and Owen Sound, formerly a “separated city,” was put back on county council. But mostly the plan, approved by the former Progressive Conservative provincial government of day, largely kept Grey’s rural-urban split in place, with the balance of power on the rural side.

As far back as 1985 a provincial task force recommended a municipal restructuring model that included an urban-rural blend. New municipal units should be organized around the existing reality of urban “service centres” surrounded by rural communities with residents who regularly come into the town or city to shop, to see the doctor or visit the hospital, go to church, dine out, go to a hockey game, lay out their produce at the local farmers market, and attend or use various cultural and recreational attractions and facilities. That was rational approach a consultant took in the late 1990s when he was hired by the Grey-Owen Sound municipal restructuring committee to develop some amalgamation scenarios. But Dick Chowen suddenly one day disappeared from the scene, the committee led by Grey’s rural-based power brokers took over the reins, and the result was a flawed plan that made islands out of the two biggest urban areas in the county, Owen Sound and Hanover. A plan that followed the sensible urban-rural model would not have created something called Georgian Bluffs. It would have put the former Derby, Sarawak and Keppel townships into a greater (in more ways than one) Owen Sound. It also would have put the former Sydenham Township into the restricted Scenic City, not in Meaford. The result would have been a new “city” that, as Eichhorn suggests, would have attracted a lot more attention, not just to itself, but to the whole area. In other words, it would have been the regional “flagship.”

One only has to consider the multi-million-dollar regional recreation centre now under construction in Owen Sound to see the existing, the de facto, reality of the greater municipality, a reality that should have been formalized within new municipal boundaries years ago. Does anyone think that facility will be used only by Owen Sound’s 21,000 residents? Why should the city have to go cap-in-hand to surrounding towns and townships for financial help to build something that will be used by the broader community?

How far should a new restructuring plan go to correct the mistakes of the past, to finally do what common sense should have dictated needed to be done long ago? A two-tiered system of amalgamated municipalities based on the urban-rural service centre model within the county system? Or a single-tier, one municipal government for the entire Grey-Bruce area? All options should be on the table, without prejudice.

Is the current, or the soon-to-be-newly-elected municipal leadership throughout the area, up to the task of taking this thorny issue in its hands and doing something sensible about it? Not if history is anything to go by. Should the candidates be talking about it now? Yes, of course. Sooner or later the province will have to step in. But don’t hold your breath there either.

Meanwhile, time is running out. As Eichhorn noted, the financial pressures faced by municipalities are going to get worse, not better, as the government of a province now in “have not” status looks for more ways to cut costs, downsize and especially download.

Municipal restructuring in this area, and elsewhere in the province where it didn’t go far enough in the 1990s, has to happen again. Otherwise, municipal taxpayers trapped in places like Owen Sound will suffer the financial consequences in the form of higher taxes or user fees.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.

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