On Tuesday, the Ford government announced that it would be ordering a comprehensive review of the governance models of eight regional municipalities and the lower-tier municipalities they are comprised of. While this part of the province doesn’t have regional governance, there’s no doubt the findings will be followed closely by municipal politicians and ratepayers in this county, too.
Critics of the government point to the Progressive Conservatives’ last term in office to suggest the report might be a stepping stone to more municipal amalgamation in the province. Most remember that time as one of high stress and chaos, with partnerships forced by a firm hand and a hard deadline, rather than productive discussion driven by the mutual interest of the parties. Perhaps that’s why, 20 years later, there’s still ongoing tensions and second guessing, particularly in smaller, outlying areas where ratepayers feel they’ve lost their identity and their voice.
While Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark claims these reviews aren’t the precursor to wider-scale discussions that could new regional governments envisioned or an end to some of the two-tier municipalities that still exist — particularly in rural areas, he shouldn’t be so quick to offer that conclusion. Sure, the benefits of the 1998 amalgamation processes are constantly debated. The state of the provincial treasury and the abilities of its municipalities to pay for an ever-increasing infrastructure deficit is not. If the province isn’t open to looking at every option to achieve efficiencies and cost savings that would allow more dollars to be spent on roads, on services like health care and education, and on economic development, then its well-paid politicians and bureaucrats aren’t doing their jobs. Maybe there are ways for all levels of government to streamline their operations and it is incumbent on them to discover options.
Though previous reconstruction efforts have impacted political representation, that doesn’t always have to be the case in these reviews. Maybe the review could look into shared administration of public works or utilities over several municipalities where they currently work in silos. Could that produce savings through economies of scale? In areas where there are two-tier governments or regional governments now, could meeting and office space be divvied up between the lower-tier municipalities to allow real estate to be divested or repurposed for pressing needs, like affordable housing stock? There is much to consider and it should be placed on the table sooner rather than later.
One can appreciate the need for hard deadlines that will stop the conversation from dragging on and on, but the Ford government does need to move forward with a caveat. The people of Ontario want to be involved in any process affecting their governance. Rather than a series of blind directives and shotgun weddings, there must be extensive consultation leading to a comprehensive plan for change. That’s how the best ideas come to the surface and that’s how to produce buy-in when the time comes to put forward legislation and execute cost savings. The province can’t afford to sit idly by, but it can’t afford a rushed decision that won’t be supported. Pains from the last round of amalgamations run deep. This is a chance for the government to achieve its goals and restore some goodwill. Let’s hope its leadership is able to recognize that.