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.
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