Amalgmation is the hate that dare not speak its name. Everyone despises it, but the newsmedia won't touch it with latex gloves and a three metre pole.
Yet it lurks just beneath the surface of many of the crises and calumnies that occupy this city's municipal affairs.
Rising transit fares? People downtown complain that area rating unfairly loads more of the transit tax burden on them than on the suburbs. People in the suburbs retort that they pay less because they get less service. Both, of course, are more or less correct.
Rising property taxes? People in the suburbs complain that their taxes were much lower before they amalgamated. People downtown retort that they still pay more than people in the suburbs. Both, of course, are more or less correct.
Sprawl? People downtown complain that developer fees and charges aren't enough to pay for greenfield housing far from the centre of the city. People in the suburbs retort that they were enough when the suburbs were independent municipalities. Both, of course, are more or less correct.
Representation on Council? People downtown complain that with twice as many residents as the suburbs, downtown should have twice as many councillors. People in the suburbs retort that their communities are distinct and deserve individual representation regardless of population - and anyway, they didn't ask to be amalgamated in the first place. Again, both are more or less correct.
The underlying conflict in these and many other issues is that amalgamation mashed two very different constituencies together quite arbitrarily, and without any thought to how their polarized agendas should be resolved.
As a result, Hamilton's amalgamated City Council is essentially dysfunctional, paralyzed between what's good for downtown and what's good for the suburbs. It seems pretty clear that the efficiency gains and economies of scale promised during amalgamation have not materialized - though the last Councillor to propose evaluating that promise (Bob Bratina) was excoriated for it - and the net result has been rising property taxes for everyone.
But let's be blunt: the real reason for amalgamation was politics, not policy: the provincial Harris government was determined to download social services onto municipalities and knew that Hamilton could not afford to carry its disproportionately high expenses without the help of its suburbs.
In short, the purpose of amalgamation was to enlarge the tax base so the government could impose its ideological agenda. Ontario is still paying for the disastrous legacies of the Harris/Eves government, and amalgamation is part of the price.
The suburbs hate amalgamation because their taxes keep going up without tangible service improvements. The downtown hates amalgamation because the political centre of gravity has moved to the geographic periphery.
Everyone hates amalgamation because everyone recognizes they're getting the shaft. The debate over who has suffered more under amalgamation misses this larger point: it was always a lose/lose proposition.
The billion dollar question is: what do we do about it now? Do we continue to apply patches, bring in more business consultants, wage world-rending political battles over straightforward issues and end up with policy pabulum, host more get-along retreats and workshops, and continue finger pointing across the municipal divide?
Do we re-jig Council so it reflects the relative populations of the city and suburbs?
Do we end area rating?
Do we lobby the province to upload social services again to relieve some of the pressure?
Or do we simply start by examining whether amalgamation is a failed idea in municipal government?
The political establishment hastily dismisses this question as irresponsible, that deamalgamating now would be like unscrambling an egg. Yet I wonder: how can we claim to be serious about sound government if we're reflexively unwilling even to think about options that fall outside our comfort zones?
I don't claim to know what the answer is; but I'm pretty sure it won't be found in refusing to ask questions.
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