Singing the Amalgamation Blues

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 11, 2007

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.

Underlying Conflict

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.

What Do We Do?

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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By jason (registered) | Posted December 11, 2007 at 18:05:55

area rating is a no-brainer (which explains why we aren't doing anything about it in Hamilton). If we're going to area rate transit and other services, then lets also area-rate suburban highway construction and maintenance etc.....

it's an easy way for an educated, developed society to rob from the poor legally.

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By beancounter (registered) | Posted December 11, 2007 at 21:34:29

“Or do we simply start by examining whether amalgamation is a failed idea in municipal government?”

This wouldn’t be a bad place to start, if someone wanted to champion such a large project.

I believe there would be a substantial body of evidence to sift through, as many jurisdictions have tried some form of amalgamation, and a great deal of investigation of the literature would be needed to come to a convincing conclusion.

We could also look at those places where amalgamations have been reversed and determine whether these have been successful.

The Free Flamborough website, for instance has this intriguing quotation in an article written by Ed Brooks, published September 23, 2003 in the Hamilton Spectator, discussing the formation of the New City of Hamilton:

 "The government also knew that amalgamation has nowhere produced cost savings, and that in the U.K. they have been reversed. Indeed academics such as Andrew Sancton have produced volumes of evidence that amalgamation has failed universally, and that U.S. cities enjoying renaissance, such as Boston and Pittsburgh, have succeeded because they are fragmented into hundreds of competing jurisdictions. Such municipal competition, which we will get through de-amalgamation, is now seen as the key to revival because it encourages co-operation across very wide geographic areas. (http://www.freeflamborough.org/spectator.html#1)

The article goes on to state six reasons why costs skyrocket in supercities, which is the exact opposite of the results claimed by the Harris government.

Perhaps E. F. Schumacher was right when he said “Small is Beautiful” in his book with that name, subtitiled “Economics as if People Mattered”.

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By CityJoe (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2007 at 02:19:11

Why don't GHA residents stop fighting amongst themselves, & simply see this for what it was? A Money Saver for the Province on the backs of various cities?

Media in general seems to have been pretty subdued & silent on any number of controversial Provincial issues & decisions. They report them, but serve up no comment after the fact. It would be interesting to know why & how the Prov. Gov. seems to have this strangle hold on the media. The fact of the Liberals being re-elected with a majority recently will just make this situation worse.

In my own opinion the GHA is ungovernable from both a financial & planning standpoint. The cash-strappped GHA just promotes more & more development in an vain attempt to catch up with their costs. They never will.

Toronto also teeters on bankruptcy, while the cost of living there & poverty levels skyrocket. Does it look like amalgamation is working anywhere?

Will any Provincail political party give you a choice next election to reject amalgamation? Of course not! Could local government force the issue? Maybe...but there doesn't seem to be anyone there who will to admit that it was a mistake in the first place.

Perhaps this is the elephant in the room that no one will mention? It is ungainly, expensive to feed, impossible to manage, messy, & completely inappropriate to it's situation, but who is gonna try to remove it? I don't see any body brave enough to try. There isn't even anyone in the media willing to report that it is there by mistake, or that there is a possibility of removing it.

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By MSM FTW (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2007 at 08:01:22

= = =
There isn't even anyone in the media willing to report that it is there by mistake, or that there is a possibility of removing it.
= = =

only if you don't count raisethehammer as part of the media...

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By Larry Di Ianni (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2007 at 10:11:46

I was raised in the inner city and now live in the suburbs. I had concerns about amalgamation and resented the offloading of provincial responsibilities onto the backs of our citizens. This is being addressed by the new provincial government. Consider just this aspect about an amalgamated city, which is important. A unified city gives us the chance to plan for the entire region rather than its component parts. Many have expressed concerns about sprawl. Well, the unified city can deal with this in a way that was impossible before, when the lower tier municipalities all competed for 'growth'. The Region was to control that phenomenon, but it didn't have the tools or political will to do so. Now ALL the same players sit at the same table. Parochial differences will subside over time giving Hamilton a chance to deal with its challenges and opportunities. This one important aspect plus the opportunity to focus resources and speak to other levels of government with a single voice makes an amalgamated Hamilton stronger.
I know the arguments about who won and who lost in the amalgamation and could engage in the debate. But what will it prove? It probably won't convince the Free Flamborough people and it surely won't sway the inner city citizens. So what is best? To build a stronger Hamilton together.

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By liveD (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2007 at 16:07:21

Politics is all parochial. It will never diminish. Amalgamation was wrong, is wrong and will be wrong. Don't sugarcoat it.

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By markwhittle (registered) - website | Posted December 14, 2007 at 15:10:08

When amalgamation happened many, many residents were hopeful that we would eventually grow into the role of one big city.

On the whole we are in a much better position getting proportional funding for services that can help our city survive and prosper.

Our social services have had more and more people get off it and onto something better suited like ODSP and many actually working and earning a wage. We recently were given enough money to buy six new wheelchair accessible buses that will better serve our community and provide an alternative instead of using a car.

Having an appointment as St josephs hospital recently gave me a chance to ride a bus to get there and back after taking the car to a previous appointment.

Just the parking fee alone would have paid for both appointment trips had I taken the bus.

Now if you really wanted people to take the bus woulkdn't you want to lower fares, not raise them making it even less affordable to those citizens who can least afford it?

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