EDITORIAL: Arguing about the ‘A’ word

It’s the political equivalent of that bucket of remote controls that clutter up our living rooms.

Amalgamation is a topic that’s always nearby, but only becomes an issue when something goes wrong.

“Honey! Where’s the remote for the DVD player?”

Lately there seems to be a renewed interest in somehow merging at least some of the baker’s dozen of cities and towns that make up Greater Victoria.

What I find interesting is that the squeakiest wheels seem to be in the City of Victoria.

In recent media reports, both Mayor Dean Fortin and police Chief Jamie Graham have come out in favour of merging at least some of the region’s 13 municipalities.

Of course, this sounds like common sense. Whether you live in the Uplands or on the shores of Glen Lake, we all default to being from Victoria, unless talking to someone versed in regional politics.

There are a lot of good cases to be made for amalgamation, as noted by myriad bloggers and Facebook pages as well as official reports from various chambers of commerce. Amalgamation would make the Capital Regional District redundant and cut administrative costs by getting rid of employees (as well as a handful of politicians) who do the same thing for different municipalities. It would also allow police to see the forest for the trees.

It’s often pointed out that criminals don’t stop at borders (though to be fair, unlike Rosco P. Coltrane on the Dukes of Hazzard, it’s quite common for local police to cross into different jurisdictions to pursue their investigations).

In terms of administering so many municipalities, there would be initial savings as duplicate positions are eliminated.

But big bureaucracies, which a new metropolis would need, don’t tend to contract or even stay the same size.

As for reducing the number of politicians to cut costs, we need to be careful about making assumptions. Right now, each of Esquimalt’s six councillors makes $11,043 annually. Compare that to Halifax, which went through an amalgamation in 1996 that produced a city roughly the same size as Greater Victoria. The Nova Scotian capital has 23 councillors, each earning $52,000 per year. In fact, the Halifax experience was that many of the anticipated salary savings never happened, as overall wages ended up rising to match the highest paid employees in the region.

But money issues aside, a more vital reason cited for merging municipalities is that a single entity could better govern the people.

I have my doubts.

Take for example the argument, often heard coming out of Victoria, that city taxpayers are unfairly burdened when it comes to paying for all the progressive things the city is trying to accomplish.

In B.C., we can look at what happened in the Fraser Valley when the former District of Abbotsford, focused around its older downtown, merged with the much larger District of Matsqui. The new City of Abbotsford re-focused its centre on what had been a Matsqui neighbourhood many kilometres away from the old downtown. City hall and the police station relocated to this central location as did many of the newer developments that sprouted up to serve the fast-growing population. The merger made sense to people who lived there, but I’m not sure it was of any benefit to the old downtown or if combining Matsqui’s police force with Abbotsford’s RCMP unit made any impact on crime.

The City of Victoria’s population makes up a little more than 20 per cent of the region and is growing slower than other areas within Greater Victoria. If the province was to force amalgamation, it’s not unreasonable to expect a similar conceding of power to the suburbs where the majority of residents live.

It’s worth noting that Vancouver City Hall, built 75 years ago, was purposefully placed outside of downtown to best serve all the newly expanded city’s citizens.

Amalgamation, like a universal remote, is probably a smart idea. The only trouble is agreeing on what to watch.

Jim Zeeben is the editor of the Saanich News.