One ‘City Of Niagara’ Would Be Of No Benefit To Smaller Communities In Region

A Commentary by Rod Minor

I have had the “pleasure” of experiencing regional government and amalgamation from two vantage points: I’ve lived in Lowbanks all my life and our family business has been in Port Colborne for over 35 years. I’ve seen the effects of Regional Government and amalgamation at various levels and times throughout those years in two distinct regions.

 The City of Niagara!?!?! Let me tell you, that is not a very comforting thought unless you happen to live in St. Catharines.

We have gone through all of this already in Haldimand. We have went from regional government under Haldimand-Norfolk to the Town of Haldimand. There is no longer a Town of Dunnville, Caledonia, Hagersville, Cayuga, etc. There is one mega-town – Haldimand – and the benefits are miniscule under the current philosophy.
 
Peter  Partington (Niagara’s outgoing regional chairman) wants the new chair of regional council to continue where he left off in creating the mega-city of Niagara. He would be hard pressed to find anyone in support of the notion of the mega-city outside of St. Catharines and the regional council chambers.

The idea of amalgamating something to obtain the best “bang for the tax payer buck” looks great on paper. The problem is it doesn’t translate well in the real world. Many amalgamation proponents and regional government advocates would argue this. But there are far too many examples to cite now where we have been subjected to this experiment for many years in various areas of our lives and throughout Ontario.

 Most people will agree in modern society that it is not fiscally responsible for every centre in a particular geographic region to have its own police force, electricity company, gas company, telephone company, sewage treatment, transit, arena, etc, and that joining together to provide some services creates economies of scale and therefore the ability to provide better service with better equipment for the same money.

However, the problems with amalgamating and with regional government, for that matter, is that the smaller centres and rural population are the ones who are subjected to short comings of the process. In almost every instance it is small town, rural Ontario that loses its local services. This is the case whether we are speaking of health care, police, schools, postal service, transit, firefighting or whatever. Amalgamating services at any level of government results in the “small” guy losing out.

The examples are numerous and in Niagara the most obvious one is the creation of the Niagara Health System (NHS) and the amalgamation of health care services. The continual service cuts and bed closures administered to small town hospitals since the inception of the NHS, culminating in the closure of two  hospitals in southern Niagara and the building of a $1.5 billion mega-hospital for the entire region in St. Catharine shows the flaws in the current ideology of amalgamation. Had the new hospital been built somewhere relatively close to the centre of the region, it would have gone a long way in establishing the credibility of the NHS, its Hospital Improvement Plan (HIP) and the amalgamation philosophy.

School closings are another example of the flaws in amalgamating services. With the enrolment numbers dwindling the need for schools is reduced and therefore closures are necessary. However, it is once again small town and rural schools being targeted with kids ending up on buses and being shipped to bigger centres.

Policing would be another example of this issue with the closure of small town and rural stations and police presence in these areas down to a car driving through and sometimes a ghost car sitting in a strategic location. (Port Colborne has had to fight tooth and nail to keep its station open.)

Not only do rural and small town residents keep being denied the same services and the same accessibility to those services as the larger cities, the promised savings of taxpayer dollars is not realized. In fact, we keep finding that when these large amalgamated bodies start managing the taxpayer purse there tends to be very little accountability for the money being spent. Outlandish expenses, health care dollars being used to lobby governments, health care dollars frivolously spent on consultant after consultant and huge salaries paid to executives are the becoming the norm while service cuts to small town rural Ontario and tax increases are being touted as the only means to tackle the funding problems.

While small town rural Ontario pays more taxes and receive less and less services, larger centres are reaping the benefits. And as centres lose services such as schools and hospitals, it becomes harder and harder to attract business and investment.

The current ideology of amalgamation is a step backwards in providing our population with its needs and the emphasis on costs is outweighing everything else. While the cost of providing services needs to be a priority, a new priority must be placed on maintaining certain services and access to those services.

Having all the services in “the big city” like back in the days of Laura Ingles Wilder has gone the way of the dinosaur, or at least I thought so. Society had moved away from having to travel long distances for health care, having a lone RCMP constable ride by every 3 weeks, walking to the nearby grocery store to use a phone or for “Doc Baker” to make his rounds once a month. Services were moved out to smaller centres so that everyone had equal access to them. Creating the City of Niagara will mean much more of the same.

One City of Niagara? Not a good idea for anyone living outside of St. Catharines!
 
Rod Minor is a resident of Port Colborne. His family owns and operates a business in Niagara’s south end.


(Click on Niagara At Large at www.niagaraatlarge.com for more news and commentary on matters of interest and concern to residents in our greater Niagara region.)

14 responses to “One ‘City Of Niagara’ Would Be Of No Benefit To Smaller Communities In Region

  1. Well said Rod…Please continue to express these sentiments on behalf of all of us “have not” residents of the Southern Tier of Niagara. The rape and pillage of essential services will continue as long as the Southern regional representatives are so out-voted by the North.
    When it comes to the continuing fight to regain Emergency Services for the Southern Tier we quickly learned that the Region does speak with one voice,,,as long as it benefits St Catharines and the new Hospital.
    Welland is now learning what the HIP Plan and the new Hospital will cost them in essential services and its been a wakeup call. With the loss of so many departments how long will they be able to keep a viable hospital? I hope this is a wake-up call to Niagara Falls as the NHS heads their direction.The days of denial are over. How wrong they were when they thought that the NHS machine would stop after they dismantled Port Colborne and Fort Erie former Hospitals …now referred to as “Sites”
    All Health Care roads will lead to St Catharines…no wonder they muse over a new north/south highway system as more travel will be necessary as we all hit the road seeking Health Care options.
    So much for the LHIN mantra of the Right Care in the Right Place at the Right Time
    Bah Humbug.

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  2. I live in the City of Tonawanda, Erie County, New York and I have no less than four legislators and four executive who represent and collect taxes from me.
    But in the course of consolidation it is not their salaries or benefits that cost me money. It is the services that my tax money pays for that is the problem.

    I am protected by no less than four police departments and have my garbage collected and roads serviced by personnel who becasue of the size of the districts are somewhat underemplyed and don’t have modern equipment. About a year ago I read of a garbage system that can service over three hundred units a day.

    Ontario has developed snow clearing equipment and road repair equipment that could do many mile more a day than any equipment we have. But our roads are too short and our garbage units (houses) are too small to even try to move to the modern equipment.

    That is where consolidation shines. You have fewer supervisors more fully employed work crews and a subsequent lower overhead to pay benefits and retirements.

    My favorite consolidation district is a school district in Virginia that has one of the highest academic ratings in the nation and has 170, 000 students. Now that is consolidating a lot of service at a lot lower cost.

    In the 1940’s we used to vacation in Low Banks at the Moody Place and I knew many Minors.

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  3. Rod Minor and Sue Salzer, you both speak so well as to what the experience of the average south Niagara taxpayer is. The problem with speaking with “one voice” as Peter Partington says is that everything goes to St. Catharines….or a stone’s throw away. In their health care system, they will have: 1. Hotel Dieu Shaver, the centre of excellence for rehabilitation and complex care 2. what will likely be the only center of excellence for acute care, cancer care, cardiac catheterization, tertiary mental health, teriary trauma, as well as prompt care centre, addiction centre and hospice.
    The rest of the region will be able to travel to access these services (maybe) and will be left with some complex care (or glorified nursing homes) clinics for opthamology and day surgeries and efforts to enhance primary care.

    North Niagara regional representatives will tell you the reason this one sided favouritism is fair is because St. Catharines has a larger population….but that is where the region has failed “us” in the south. St. Catharines speaks with a LOUDER voice. Population should not be the only factor in the location of essential and government services, nor in the number of representatives for each municipality. Size of area and equitable access should also be factored into the equation.

    Art Klein’s argument for consolidation leads to economy can be argued. That was the justification for the amalgamation of our hospital systems and has led to over $130 million in long term debt by the NHS and the removal of many of our hospital services and forced us to rely on ambulances for life saving and emergency services….sometimes leading to untimely deaths.
    In the case of Niagara Region in 2000 their employees making over $100,000 was 15. In 2009 that figure jumped to 246. Yikes!

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  4. One Niagara would mean one Transit system, Fire and Emergency, Public Works and or Parks department and at which level of service would be required and mandated by the taxpayers of the smaller municipalities? Standardizing those services could impose substantial service demands thus a further increase already over taxed region.More bureaucrats and more government, I am thrilled, bring it on for public debate. Let’s first improve Regional communications with the general public and then seek real citizens input on the amalmagation issue. Do not wait till the next election 2014 to address this very important issue

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  5. The City of Toronto, amalgamated by Mike Harris, and Chatham Essex-Kent, also amalgamated, have rung up huge increases in taxes as little boroughs, and smaller burgs get swallowed up. Read Andrew Sanctions books on the topic, and, at least, wonder. Just one f’r instance: if you amalgmate all the fire depts in Niagara, how do rationalize the different pay structures of all the existing ones? Go for the lowest paid as a base or grid, or the top paid ones. Gotta guess?

    This is simplistic, of course, but think a little bit more about trying to mix various professions at various pay scheduels and how will it come out?

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  6. I have a thought on the “One Niagara” and that’s “Two Niagara’s” based on the traditional county lines of Lincoln and Welland. The current arguments from the lofty heights of Schmon Parkway talk about the economies of scale that can be achieved through amalgamation. Other writers have pointed out some of the flaws in our past experiments such as the NHS and its St. Catharines-centric consolidation of health care services at the expense of the south. The NRP with its inability to show any fiscal restraint while maintaining one of the lackluster records as a police force in the province.
    We are geographically too large and diverse to administer ourselves as a single entity and shown poor performance or abject failures on every level of importance, economic development, health care, policing, public transit and planning. What I’m not suggesting is total amalgamation within the north and south tiers but rather smaller regional or county governments along with local municipalities.
    The advantages are we in the south would have a stronger voice dealing with the north as well as the federal and provincial governments. Haldimand-Norfolk were granted a divorce eight years ago and maybe its time we considered a similar option here.

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  7. Now for a counterpoint: I understand the anger over the hospital system and the problems with salaries when amalgamation takes place, and then there is overbearing St. Catharines. And yes, the hospital is in the wrong place (by quite a bit). These are valid issues, but most are result of parochialsim and Provincial deal making in the face of a weak Regional government. If so, how does keeping the structural parochialism and poor planning we have make things better in the long run? How does the multitude of politicians make it better? How do we get to the place where we can have more sustainable communities with healthy, vibrant, and walkable neighbourhoods with effective public transportation? Don’t get me wrong. Local representation for local issues is important, like appointing committees to promote local festivals or commenting on urban planning issues. Being unhappy about representation that clearly does not work does not change what we have. What do you want? One Niagara? No Region? What we have now but slightly modified?
    One Niagara, properly formatted, can put an end the parochialism and create the environment for good planning, but the devil is in the formative details and that, in my view, is where the energy should be focussed.

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  8. While I can agree with some of Rod Minor’s concerns–I don’t support one city either–his argument, to me, is undermined by the statement that outgoing Regional Chair Peter Partington “wants the new chair of regional council to continue where he left off in creating the mega-city of Niagara.” When has Partington stated this? This is not Partington’s view. He has stated that we should reduce the number of municipalities down to 8 or 9, but does not support one city. What he has asked the next Council to do is that if they’re going to go down the road of discussing governance, they have to be prepared to follow through on it. He has stated he does not want to see a repeat of the previous governance debate in the early part of this decade where the region and local municipalities chose to do nothing after all the debate and passions that we aroused. Much of this I, too, can agree with.
    But one’s arguments are never helped when part of their premise is based on conjecture, not fact.

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  9. One of the key reasons why Niagara does not have one voice, an effective transit system and businesses avoid us like the plague is because of parochialism and small communities wanting to keep to themselves and what they want to themselves. I know much better planning is required at the regional level in order to achieve effective regional programs, but ditching tegional in favour of local programs is not going to work. Not while I can’t get from one place to another in this region or even feel a part of this region.

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  10. Angela has been a strong advocate of regional transit over the last couple of years. Regional initiatives have in the past and still are (much to my chagrin) pushing tourism as somehow being Niagara’s economic salvation. The greatest economic imperative this area has to face is access to jobs. Without a regional system we are not fulfilling an obligation to the unemployed/underemployed to be able to seek out jobs within our regional commerce zone. To me this is fundamental to provide opportunity to people in Niagara.
    Going back to the hospital location for a moment has made matters even worse for the less fortunate in outlying municipalities as now they lack access to jobs and healthcare.
    I made a somewhat facetious comment recently to a friend about Regional government, that Niagara is like Somalia whereby tribal warlords act not in the best interest of the country but rather in their best interest and that of their tribe. It’s a stretch, I know, but it certainly feels that way a lot of time.

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    • John, even people in St. Catharines are feeling the pressure because our taxes in addition to whatever others across the region are paying, are going even more towards this hospital. Homeowners around the immediate area are stuck with the bill for infrastructure development. Traffic jams happen all the time at this section of town as it is with the presence of several residences and Big Box stores and one pathway to Port Dalhousie and another to the Downtown. Add the hospital and I can just imagine what this section will look like with screeching ambulances, expectant mothers going into labour and people attempting to cross the streets to see what will now become a large complex of medical offices.

      And I have spoken since the beginning that the Hospital Improvement Plan, or the Hip, is not so hip after all. Thanks for your comments. Thoughtful as always.

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  11. I propose a simple but effective step forward that does not threaten any community ,but can achieve efficiencies , reduce duplications and build a common economic development strategy. Reform Regional Government by replacing the Regional Councillors with City Councillors who sit at the Region and the City, double duty, Councillors will run for the Double duty job. Secondly elect the Regional Chair at large by all the voters in every corner of Niagara. Regional Council becomes a team of mayors and city councillors sitting around a common table with common purpose. This will build communications between the Region and the municipalities, and between municipalities. Less Two Tier, more Team Niagara.
    This would be a productive reform that creates more of a team of 12 and does not threaten members of the team. Halton Region operates this way, Peel, York and Durham Regions are similar, it is a reform that is familiar to the Province. I believe we can achieve this change in time for the next election. We can achieve the triple majority, and then get Provincial approval and finally break the log jam, and take a step forward.

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  12. Bruce, I anticipate that services being uploaded to the region at this time might be swallowed more easily than a wholesale One City approach, although I personally like the One City approach. Elimination of duplication is a start. By the way, I am hoping for you to get the Regional Chair position; if you ran at large, I’d vote for you too. Good luck!

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  13. Bruce is the only Regional Councilor who spoke about Regional government reform prior to the recent election and asked for input on how to achieve it. That in itself is good reason to support him for the next Chair.

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