One person I was speaking with today opened the conversation with: "I know you've always been pro-amalgamation, Al, but I appreciate the fact that you're trying to be balanced here."
Well, here's the thing. When I first campaigned for a seat on Council in 2008, one of the things I committed to was that I would bring forward a motion within 90 days of the election to hold a referendum on this issue. I made that motion, and it failed rather spectacularly. There was no appetite on the rest of the Council at that time to take on this issue.
So it essentially died for the next 6 years. Then, near the end of the 2011-2014 term, then-Councillor Jen Woike - in conjunction with then-Councillor Martin Barker in Duncan - resurrected the discussion. That resulted in a question being put on the ballot in the 2014 election, asking the voters whether they would be OK with both Duncan and North Cowichan spending some money on looking at the issue of re-uniting the two municipalities. In both cases, the voters approved of the idea, although the margin of approval was considerably smaller in Duncan than North Cowichan.
That set in motion 3 years of discussion, spearheaded by a "Committee of Four." Two Councillors from Duncan (Michelle Bell and Michelle Staples), and two from North Cowichan (Maeve Maguire and myself), looked at how to proceed with this. First we approached the Province to get them to share in some of the costs of doing a study. They agreed. Then, both Councils agreed to the appointment of a "Citizen's Assembly" to consider this.
An outside consultant (Urban Systems), was contracted to produce a report on the technical aspects of the amalgamation. There was also some input from some long-serving (and retired) politicians and municipal administrators, including former Duncan CAO Tom Ireland and former Mayor Mike Coleman, as well as several familiar names from North Cowichan, including former CAO Jim Dias and long-time councillor Glen Ridgway.
At the end of the day, the Citizen's Assembly considered that technical report and the input from those veterans, and wrote its report. That report recommended that a vote be held on the issue, and also came out in favour of a "yes" vote.
Which brings us to today. Last week, Municipal Affairs Minister Selena Robinson issued two "Ministerial Orders", (one for Duncan, and the other for North Cowichan), ordering a vote to be held on June 23rd.
So, where do I stand on the issue today?
I've often said that when I first got elected, I "knew all the answers." But then I add: "Now that I've been at the table for 10 years, I'm finally starting to figure out what questions to ask." Which is another way of saying that my support for amalgamation has softened considerably since 2008.
Yes, I still think that a single governing body makes more sense. I still shake my head - as do countless other people - at the notion that we have two Fire Halls located just a few blocks apart. At the very least, the optics of that in terms of efficiency are lacking.
But I'm not as convinced today as I was 10 years ago that amalgamation should be a slam-dunk exercise in cost savings. There are a number of particular reasons for this. One very simple one has to do with policing costs. Right now, what is formally "Duncan" is policed by "provincially-funded" officers. Under amalgamation, that would end. The question becomes: "What proportion of the current 'blended' detachment can legitimately to be considered to be dedicated to policing in 'Duncan proper?'"
Conventional wisdom, based on call volumes, etc, says that proportion amounts to anywhere between 6 and 10 officers. The financial responsibility for those positions would transfer from the province to the new "amalgamated" municipality. At a cost of roughly $180,000 per officer (determined by a contract that is negotiated by the Province, and includes costs for ongoing training, vehicles, guns, uniforms, etc), that works out to an extra cost of between $1.08 and $1.8 million dollars. To be clear, that's an annual amount. Payable every single year. And funded collectively, by all the taxpayers of the new municipality. If we remain status quo, and Duncan eventually crosses the threshold of 5,000 residents, that cost would be borne exclusively by taxpayers in what is now "the City".
The issue is more closely examined on pages 34 and following of the Urban Systems technical report which I link below. And this is just one example of how the reality of senior government funding structures tend to mess with our preconceived notions of "increased efficiencies."
Residents of what's now Duncan would also - over time - lose their annual "Small Communities Grant" to the tune of roughly a million dollars a year. It wouldn't go right away, but it would be phased out. So that's another cost that would have to be absorbed by the new, unified municipality.
So while it may seem counter-intuitive, I have become convinced that amalgamation isn't something that will automatically "reduce costs." There may be efficiencies in the long term, yes. But they are neither as big nor as obvious as they may seem.
However, there's another side to this equation as well. The Citizen's Assembly report came down in favour of amalgamation not on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis, but rather because of social and political realities. You can read the report for yourself (it's also linked below), but the bottom line for the Assembly was the notion that we are functionally and socially one community. And that amalgamation would simply reflect that reality in the governance of what are now two distinct political entities. The convergence of things like zoning bylaws, Official Community Plans, road maintenance standards, and municipal regulations - according to the Assembly - is a bigger reason to amalgamate than any perceived cost savings. And that position also has some resonance for me.
Bottom line? There's going to be a lot of information coming at you in the next few weeks. A lot of people will have a vested interest in "selling" you one side or the other of the proposition. Don't believe them. Do your own research.
Part of the provincial funding identified earlier is going to a public information campaign; a campaign conducted by another outside consultant to ensure objectivity. All sides of the discussion will be presented, under the the theme "You Decide." A website (www.youdecide.ca) will be going live shortly, complete with an FAQ page. There will also be opportunities for community engagement via four open houses throughout the region, including at the Duncan Farmer's Market. They're also planning a mail-out to every home in both municipalities.
One more thing. The ultimate result of this vote will be going to the Municipal Affairs Minister. It's not up to either Council to determine a "yay" or "nay" on this. To be clear, a majority of voters in each municipality would have to approve the amalgamation in order for it to go ahead. And even then, nothing is guaranteed. For example, if only 8% of the voters in North Cowichan show up for the vote, and the turnout in Duncan is 10%, and the final vote results are just over 50% in favour, the minister may well look at the results and say: "At the end of the day, fewer than 6 in 100 people voted in favour of this. So it won't be going ahead." All of which to say, voter turnout will be critical here.
So after you review all the information, be sure to turn out to vote. Whichever way you decide to go, your input is critical. (And yes, there will be advance voting opportunities. Details on those dates will be released in the coming weeks. Bookmark that www.youdecide.ca website and go back to it frequently once it's up and running. Once that happens, there will be lots of new information posted there on an ongoing basis.)
So how will I vote on June 23rd? That'd be telling.
Here's the link to the Citizen's Assembly report: https://bit.ly/2EBcvKV
Here's the link to the Urban Systems technical report: https://bit.ly/2HeKpKH
And the website that will deal with all of this - to be going live shortly - is www.youdecide.ca