Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Municipal Amalgamation - Be careful what you wish for!

A recent letter in our local paper from a Westville resident concerning a Chamber of Commerce study caught my eye. The writer wrote in favour of municipal amalgamation. As well, in the same paper a most informative and knowledgeable report on his town from Pictou’s Councillor Naylor touched on the subject. Both gentlemen referred to Pictou County and the city of Toronto having about the same number of municipal mayors and councillors (40-45) while the Toronto area has about 40-45 times the population. While that is an interesting comparison, it ignores other important considerations. (...continued)

However, a consideration that neither mentioned was the relative numbers of municipal staff in the two areas. How is that relevant you may ask? Well, I took a good look at that report Councillor Naylor provided for us on his town. What do you suppose the chances are that the mayor or any on the councillors in Toronto could provide that full and detailed a report on the city of Toronto area? There’s not a snowball’s chance in h-ll that any of them could. If they wanted to provide such a full, detailed report to the public they would have to employ an army of paid underlings to research and write it.

Councillor Naylor works fulltime and only has part time hours to devote to council duties. Yet, if you want to see or talk to him about a town problem, you can run across him in the area most days or track him down pretty easily. Not so in Toronto, where the only time you’ll see your councillor is election time of at a photo-op. Naylor is likely on a first name basis and discusses town issues with over half of his constituents. Toronto councillors probably don’t even know their neighbours if they live more than three doors up the street.

This is not the first time municipal amalgamation has been studied. Years ago when I was on Pictou Council, we looked at it very closely both locally and provincially through the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities (UNSM). I recall an American expert the UNSM brought in to discuss and answer our questions on the relative merits of small town and city governments. He drew our attention to the inverse relationship between the size and the efficiency of any workforce (including municipal). He pointed out that the most efficient workforce is one man working with his own truck or machine. With each additional man or machine you bring on you lose efficiency because you now need to take time for communications and scheduling. When you get to 5 to 7 workers you increase cost and drop efficiency again because you now need the added expense of a supervisor and so on as you continue to build your organization.

The truth of this scenario really hit home to me when we amalgamated our school boards. When Pictou had its own school board, our superintendent, Fred Turley shared an office and a secretary in Pictou Academy with the principal, Stan MacNeil. Both knew their own jobs and their areas of responsibility so all went well. However, when we amalgamated the boards in Pictou County and moved the superintendents out of their areas, they were all in unfamiliar territory and each suddenly needed both an assistant and a secretary all of whom moved into unfamiliar work areas so it also seemed necessary to hire supervisors of math, English, etc. to coordinate the teaching throughout the County.

At that time we needed and had few if any school buses as students in Pictou mostly walked to school; our schools were shut down when we had a heavy snow in town; and, six local school board members in town coordinated education in Pictou with both student and community needs.

Now we have lots of expensive school buses running around the town; our schools shut down if snow is forecast to fall in Lantz, Enfield or any other place in the Chignecto area where ever that is; our school board members now represent not municipalities but numbered poling districts and town schools and students educate mostly in an education bubble, isolated and separated from other municipal systems.

Another important consideration is the way urban communities grow. Look at any city. You’ll see both wealthy areas and poorer or even slum areas. In Pictou County, we have five town councils with community leaders each fighting with relative success to bring some of the economic benefits being shared to their area. But examine a map of Pictou County. It doesn’t take much genius to predict what will happen if you amalgamate and centralize those councils and radically reduce the number of elected officials who actually know, have direct contact with and speak up for the citizens. The richer areas like Abercrombie and part of Stellarton will get richer; the poorer areas like Westville, Trenton and perhaps to a lesser extent, Pictou will get poorer.

Now I am not against amalgamation. I just urge all to be careful what they wish for. But, if you are willing to accept those inevitable drawbacks and changes in your community, and if you truly believe that what is good for the County is good for all, there possibly are substantial benefits to be had in going city government. I just believe we could take the time and put in the effort to do it both ways.

I’ve studied community development and with the possible exception of Trenton which lacks a business district, I believe all our towns possess the resources needed to develop themselves before an eventual amalgamation so they could enter as more equal partners. And even Trenton, which got lazy and allowed its business sector to fade away, I believe could fake it and begin to rebuild that and its other sectors because they have such a strong employment base in their citizenry.The End - Return to main page

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