Tag Archives: amalgamation

N1agara: Cui Bono?

Hubbub about One Niagara City (N1agara is my chosen, 21st-century moniker) has cropped up again recently, due to a meeting of local business leaders.  (http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2015/06/23/region-gets-blast-from-business-sector)

Let me start by saying George Darte and Tom Rankin are great business leaders and great community leaders. Each has made a large, lasting and positive impact in Niagara through both their businesses and their community work. It is important, however, to remember that they are not a Business/Community Leader. Being successful in business does not necessarily mean you’re going to become a community leader, and being a community leader does not require you to be a business person. In a similar vein, it is important that we are able to separate “what’s good for the business community” and “what’s good for the community.” These will (often) be one and the same, but not always.

I’ve discussed N1agara previously (https://niagaranext.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/oneniagara/) but wanted to try to answer a more specific question this time around. Namely: Cui Bono? Who benefits from N1agara? Without re-stating my previous post in its entirety, a quick summary: Niagara does not have a single urban centre the region revolves around, amalgamation has not found success where it has been tried and finally, amalgamation does not lead to a decrease in municipal spending (http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/01/13/amalgamation_brought_fewer_ontario_cities_but_more_city_workers_report_finds.html).

The last point is an important one, as cutting costs leading to reduced taxes is the most frequently cited argument for N1agara. In many ways, amalgamation is more about taxes than it is about governance. Improved service delivery and “cutting red tape” are usually cited as potential byproducts of amalgamation. But make no mistake, the crux of the pro-N1agara argument is about cutting costs.

In fact, in the very Standard article that kick-started the recent outbreak of hubbub, here are some quotes from local business leaders:

“[W]e want one City of Niagara. That’s your first line item in cutting costs.”

“We have to do something, we’re almost bankrupt. We’ve got seniors who can’t afford to pay our taxes. We’ve got working people who can’t afford to pay our taxes”

“If (the interest rate) spikes — if Putin decides to start shooting, which he probably will and the interest rates start climbing, you are bankrupt,” Fox said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggression in Ukraine. You are going to be going the way of Detroit. There’s a part of me … that actually would like to see that happen, because it would solve the problem. So if you don’t want that to happen … stop spending money. We need a plan to significantly pay off the debt over time.”

(I included that last one for comic relief; the idea that an outbreak of a large-scale war with Russia would be particularly worrisome for us locally because of Niagara Region’s debt load is hilariously single-minded, and only topped by comparing us to Detroit, a city that claimed bankruptcy for a multitude of reasons but had a debt load 3600% higher than we do currently. Maybe don’t use the “Detroit” comparison quite yet…)

Sounds like our taxes compare negatively to the rest of Ontario.

http://www.niagararegion.ca/government/budget-taxes/municipal-tax-comparisons.aspx

It would appear our tax rates for similar residential, commercial and industrial properties is actually close to the lowest among comparable municipalities in Ontario . In fact, businesses seem to get a big break in Niagara, considering the lower tax rates for residential, commercial and industrial properties. Certainly, at worst, our tax rate could be considered “normal” if not “low”. This leaves alone other ways businesses are aided in Niagara, like development charges being waived (http://www.niagarafallsreview.ca/2013/01/18/region-waives-development-charges-for-industry), or money simply handed to businesses by government  to the tune of 19.7 million dollars (http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2015/04/22/speedway-incentives-approved ) (talk about picking winners and losers.)

What about that pesky debt rate, how does it compare?

Long-Term Liabilities (debt)/Capita
Hamilton  $                     702.83
Durham Region  $                     343.47
Waterloo Region  $                     840.46
Niagara Region  $                     606.58

So, amalgamation wouldn’t help cut costs, and Niagara doesn’t currently have significantly higher taxes or debt load even if it did. So why is the business community crying out for lower taxes (by way of N1agara)?


Cui Bono?

If taxes aren’t the reason businesses are staying away (as our tax rates are good or normal), lowering them further won’t help attract more businesses. Even if N1agara did lead to lower taxes, (which we’ve seen it hasn’t), who would benefit from this? Currently established businesses (like I don’t know, all the ones at the roundtable at the Region this week) would save significant amounts of money right away if taxes were lowered. Cuts to services would be required, as we have seen that attrition alone isn’t enough to put amalgamated municipalities in the black. Even if laying off staff was enough, it just means a higher unemployment rate when those municipal workers are laid off. So unemployment goes up, services get worse and this benefits Niagara how?


 

Conclusion

The main problem with Niagara’s problems is that we have not even articulated, let alone agreed upon, Niagara’s problems or possible solutions. We have just consistently heard from the business community about its problems because it has a loud voice and a united goal ($$$). Again, I like George Darte and Tom Rankin, but this isn’t about the greater good. I’m not discounting the business community, I think good, responsible and successful businesses are important to any community. But that is just one part.

Is status quo acceptable? I think any reasonable person would say that it is not. We know that the jobs issue is a big one, but is it the only one? Is it a cause of problems or a symptom of problems or both?  Is the problem that we are spending too much or not spending enough to provide better services that may attract businesses and people? Are we overgoverned, misgoverned or adequately governed? Should we amalgamate or better collaborate while maintaining our municipalities? Do we want to become a commuter, bedroom community? There are a myriad of complex questions that N1agara seeks to solve with one solution. It cannot.

It is fine (and great!) to have an opinion on the proper way forward, but it should be backed up by facts, precedents and impact if it is to be taken seriously. An absolutely exhaustive statistical analysis of amalgamation is beyond my scope, but it also hasn’t been carried out yet, so why are still putting the N1agara horse before the analysis cart?

My opinion? Sure, you’ve come all this way: leverage our advantages (like tourism dollars and proximity to the border) to provide better services (roads, transit, community programs) without increasing taxes. Instead of a flat tax cut across the board, give the thousands of non-local students who graduate every year here a reason to stay in Niagara by providing property tax breaks for hiring Brock or Niagara College grads. Grow the population by making Niagara attractive to all, not just corporations. Address the complex issues with intelligent, nuanced solutions. Simple? Yes. But it requires a lot of cooperation and hard work.

Just one citizen’s opinion.

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Niagara’s Red Herring – Why “One Niagara” Should Be Taboo

“Everything would be better if Niagara was One Municipality instead of 12.”

This is a phrase heard regularly by those who travel in political circles or those who care to discuss the multitude of issues currently facing Niagara.

Don’t say this phrase or some version of it. Don’t believe it or some version of it. And certainly don’t vote for any politician who says this or makes it a part of their platform for election.

red her·ring (noun)

red herring is a figurative expression referring to a logical fallacy in which a clue or piece of information is or is intended to be misleading, or distracting from the actual question

 

“One Niagara” is the most popular Red Herring around Niagara these days. Politicians offer it as a cure-all. The business community presents it as a game-changer. Citizens see it as a money-saver. Usually, the “One Niagara” idea is presented by a party and accepted by all those present as Right and Good in about the same amount of time (and with a corresponding level of consideration) as drinking a Pickle Shot at Sheehan’s.

So why is this idea bandied about so frequently and examined so rarely? There are a few reasons why “One Niagara” is such a popular idea:


 

  • “It’s simple!”

    We live in an instant-gratification society and the number one thing going for the “One Niagara” idea is that it allows us all to be lazy. It should be apparent to all who care to think that there are various complex and unique issues facing Niagara and its communities. But that sort of rational thinking gets swept away when presented with a one-size-fits-all, immediate cure for what ails us. “One Niagara” let’s us believe there is a one way to make this area great again. And look, we barely had to lift a finger.


  • “It’s not MY fault”

    Not taking responsibility is a time-honoured tradition for the human race, and I’m loathe to speak against it, but it has greatly aided and abetted the One Niagara red herring. Politicians (often elected but especially prospective) love One Niagara. You’re a city councillor and you can’t balance the budget? Lack of One Niagara. You’re a regional councillor and you can’t figure out a transit system? Lack of One Niagara. Pretty much every prospective official has to spout One Niagara because, as I said, we all love it so much. “My opponent has been Mayor for four years and yet, here are, still without One Niagara. Elect me, Jimmy Blowhard: One Niagara guy.”


  • “I’m smart and engaged”

    Saying One Niagara immediately gives off the perception that an individual knows and cares about Niagara. Whether they can elaborate on the specific solutions One Niagara gives isn’t relevant. This is a person who GETS IT and further discussion of the social, economic or political issue at end is not required. Why examine the condition of the working poor when we can’t even figure out One Niagara?


  • “Governments are bloated and there are too many workers gorging themselves on the money of taxpayers”

    This will always be popular among voters and politicians alike. Even NDP-leaning politicians would never run on “More Public Sector Employees Making More Money”. Use of taxpayer funds is a popular and sensitive subject simply because it affects all taxpayers, which is almost every Canadian in one form or another. Cutting public sector jobs and salaries is always going to play with Joe Taxpayer. One Niagara feeds off this because it is easy to make the connection between amalgamating cities and amalgamating positions. From 12 mayors to 1, lickety-split savings. It would be terrible to find out this thinking was flawed, wouldn’t it? Let’s go to the Toronto Star from earlier this year for more:

What about the idea that amalgamation will allow us to cut down on bloated government spending and pass that savings onto residents or into improving services? From the Toronto Star in January 2014: “It was dubbed the Common Sense Revolution — Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris’s 1995 campaign to slash the province’s bloated public sector through massive municipal government restructuring, to the tune of $250 million in taxpayer savings. But new analysis has found that while amalgamation technically decreased the number of municipalities in Ontario — down from 850 to 445 — and 23 per cent of elected official positions were axed, more people than ever are working in Ontario’s municipal governments. “The conclusion is very strong: amalgamation didn’t reduce the size of municipal government,” said Timothy Cobban, political science professor at Western University and lead researcher.” (http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/01/13/amalgamation_brought_fewer_ontario_cities_but_more_city_workers_report_finds.html)


Here’s the thing about One Niagara that’s the real kicker though: it is a horrible idea. The worst part about the idea isn’t that it is lazy, or that it allows politicians to pass the buck or that it curtails discussions of actual problems and solutions, or even that it is based on flawed logic. The worst part of “everything would be better if Niagara was One Municipality instead of 12” is that it is wrong.

Proponents of amalgamating Niagara into one city will often point to Hamilton or Ottawa. Both of these cities have amalgamated with area municipalities to form One City in the last 13 years. The process for both was similar: an already-existing Regional Municipality consisting of lower-tier municipalities was absorbed by its largest urban municipality to form a single-tiered municipality. Here’s the problem with these comparisons: Niagara doesn’t have a single, large urban municipality that the entire region revolves around. Niagara has three urban centres of a similar size in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland/Port. Furthermore, none of the “disappearing” municipalities from Ottawa/Hamilton had a strong tourism identity/economy like Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake do. How many tourists travel to Ancaster and Smith Falls a year? These are the two most obvious reasons why we aren’t like Ottawa and Hamilton, leaving alone issues surrounding population density and Niagara’s unique geography (far-flung cities, the Welland Canal and the escarpment, for example.)

Amalgamation was a far more obvious choice in Ottawa and Hamilton, single urban centres that absorbed their supporting surrounding communities. And guess what? In spite of their more apparent rationale for amalgamation, they have hardly been successful.  From the Rural Council, representing the communities lost in amalgamation: “Amalgamation: The Costly Experiment That Failed” (http://www.ruralcouncil.ca/amalgamation.htm). In Hamilton: “Singing The Amalgamation Blues” (http://www.raisethehammer.org/blog/872/). I could post links all day that mention the same problems, but these two give a succinct idea of the effects of amalgamation in those communities.

Ok, but what about smaller communities that amalgamated like Kingston, Central Elgin or Chatham-Kent? If Niagara isn’t like Ottawa and Hamilton, maybe its amalgamation will succeed rather than fail. Nope: since their amalgamation 17 years ago, citizens have strongly responded that their tax dollars are being used worse than before amalgamation:

“Contrary to the provincial expectation that amalgamations would result in more efficient service delivery, in every jurisdiction the majority of respondents felt that the value they were receiving for their taxes declined since amalgamation” (http://www.cjrs-rcsr.org/archives/26-1/siegel.pdf).

Citizens also have generally been more against amalgamation than for it in all three places.


 

Amalgamation has failed in every municipality it has impacted. It will fail here. We won’t see lower taxes, we won’t see less spending on politician/public sector salaries, we won’t see higher employment rates and we won’t see improved transit as a result of amalgamation. One Niagara would only make our issues worse, not better.

Everyone suffers from confirmation bias, myself included. So it’d be fair for you to think that I just found the sources that told me One Niagara was bad because that’s the conclusion I wanted. That’d be fair. So look into the issue yourself. Take the time to be able to back it up before spouting One Niagara.

As for me, I won’t ever be voting for anyone who says One Niagara is our solution; they either: 1. haven’t done the research 2.  Have done the research and are not competent or 3. Are simply trying to pass on finding real solutions to issues.

Let’s expect more Niagara. Let’s focus on real solutions and not fall victim to a red herring.