Monday, May 14, 2018

So... Amalgamation -- Yes or No?



I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the June 23rd amalgamation vote. 

Practically everywhere I go, people want to talk about this.  They're asking me for my perspective as though somehow - presumably because I'm on North Cowichan Council - I can provide them with some definitive words of wisdom that will settle the issue in their minds and give them a final answer on how to vote.  Warren Goulding, the publisher of the Cowichan Valley Citizen, wrote what can only be described as a scathing indictment of me and my fellow North Cowichan Councillors for "hiding in the weeds" on this issue.  It's his position that each of us on Council are obligated to make our positions known; that not doing so amounts to shirking our responsibilities as elected officials. 

I refuted some of Warren's argument on my Facebook page, essentially making the case that getting politicians to weigh in on this when it's those politicians - more than anyone else - who have a vested interest in the outcome of this discussion, is probably not the best way to have the community make an objective and dispassionate decision.  "Maybe", I wrote, "we shouldn't have bothered" with the hiring of an independent third party to get the unbiased information out there.  Maybe "we should just let the whole debate degenerate into nothing but political 'opinions' from both sides."   

And it's clear that there are a lot of "opinions".   Many of them visceral.  Many of them ill-informed.  And a lot of them very passionate.  There's been lots of discussion on this; there's a pro-amalgamation Facebook page, Letters to the Editor, and lots of chatter on Social Media.  In fact, the social media debate got so heated on the PlaceSpeak website (which was set up as part of the "unbiased" third-party information package on this) that they've shut down the discussion page because of all the bias, anger, and misinformation that was being posted by folks promoting one side or the other in this discussion.

And as I read the opinions on this - both for and against - I don't find most of the arguments to be terribly compelling. 

The "no" side is trotting out claims that amalgamation will inevitably lead to higher taxes for everyone.  Policing is the biggest issue there, with the nay-sayers claiming that costs are going to go through the roof if we amalgamate, because we'll all be forced to pay for policing in the City of Duncan.  On the face of it some of this is true, but what they're not telling you is that Duncan residents will very likely be paying those costs on their own after the next census in any event, because the City will finally cross the Rubicon of the 5-thousand population mark.  Fundamentally, the only difference amalgamation would make is that those extra costs (over a million dollars a year), would be spread among about 20-thousand households rather than the few thousand households in Duncan itself.  And the Province has promised to help with the transition if the vote is "yes", by off-setting about $8-million dollars in policing costs over the first five years of the life of a newly amalgamated municipality.  But the bottom line is that - amalgamation or not - costs for policing will be going up.  The question really comes down to who will pay.  Will it be just the citizens of Duncan, or will this cost be spread more widely?

Fire protection is another favourite alarm bell for the "no" side.  They keep on adamantly insisting that amalgamation will inevitably lead to the need for a full-time paid fire department.  Which is absolute poppycock.  It may happen, but it would equally be fully within the powers of the Council of the newly amalgamated municipality to leave things exactly as they are in terms of fire protection.  And once those Councillors understand the tremendous value we're getting from our paid on-call (volunteer) department(s), it's a pretty good bet they won't want to go down the road of a fully staffed and fully paid fire department.  In my ten years on Council, I honestly can't think of a single municipal operation in either Duncan or North Cowichan where taxpayers are getting a better bang for their buck than in our current fire protection system.

There are other "no" arguments as well.  Duncan Councillor Sharon Jackson - who's strongly on the "no" side of this - keeps insisting that Duncan will lose its identity in an amalgamated municipality.  And that City residents will be swallowed up into a new political entity where they'll have no political input or clout. 

Let's take these one at a time.  The "identity" piece is clearly a shibboleth.  Ask the folks in Maple Bay, Crofton, or Chemainus about their "identity."  They are pretty proud of their communities, and seem to be able to promote their distinctive identities quite clearly and proudly within the larger governance paradigm of North Cowichan.

And the "political input"?  Puh-leeeze, Sharon, give your head a shake.  Duncan's population is larger than Chemainus.  There's no denying that Chemainus has considerable influence within the current governance of North Cowichan, but if Duncan residents were to truly get engaged, there's no reason they couldn't exert the same - or even greater - clout in a newly amalgamated entity than their neighbours to the north. 

Further, the claim about a "lack of influence" is actually kind of galling coming from someone who sits on a Council that has exactly two City residents on it.  That's right folks.  Five of the seven people on the current Duncan Council don't even live within City limits.  (And the two that do aren't property owners; they're renters.)  So let's cut the nonsense about how amalgamation would "reduce the influence" of Duncan residents in the governance of their community.  Even without amalgamation, decisions about tax increases and other city governance issues in Duncan are being made, in the main, by people who don't even live there.  

But some of the arguments from the "yes" side are almost equally unconvincing. The pro-amalgamation people are citing "savings" of up to $830-thousand dollars a year if the two municipalities become one.  They glean these numbers by cherry-picking some items from the Urban Systems technical report that was prepared for the Citizen's Assembly.  And on the face of it, those numbers may be (close to) accurate.  But as someone who's helped put together municipal budgets for 10 years now, I'm not convinced that those "savings" would actually translate into reduced taxes across the board.  In fact, I'm pretty sure the net effect would be minimal.  Those savings, when spread across the total budget of the newly amalgamated municipality, amount to about a 1.5% cut in the taxes that would need to be collected.  But the reality is that our tax increases - in both Duncan and North Cowichan - have been considerably higher than that.  So in effect, whatever "savings" might be generated by amalgamation would - at best - only serve to slightly slow down the rate of tax increases.

What I'm trying to say here is that anyone who believes amalgamation will result in "lower taxes" is dreaming in technicolour.  The same number of people will require the same number of services after amalgamation as before.  And that costs money.  Yes, there may be some "economies of scale" by having these services delivered by a single provider, but we shouldn't be expecting huge savings here. 

So at the end of the day, the finances on this are neither as grim as the anti-amalgamation forces would have you believe, nor as rosy as what's being painted by the pro-unity forces.  Which is another way saying what I wrote back in April, when I first touched on this amalgamation issue on my blog.  I wrote then that "a lot of people will have a vested interest in 'selling' you one side or the other of the proposition."  And I went on to urge you to do your own research. 

So where do I stand on this?  I have followed the history of this closely.  In fact, let me tell you a little secret.  A few years before I was elected to Council, I was invited to a meeting of a group of business folks in town who thought "the time had come" to consider amalgamation again.  The top three municipal bureaucrats in the Valley, (the CAO's), were all retiring or getting ready to leave; Paul Douville in Duncan, Frank Raimondo at the CVRD, and Jim Dias in North Cowichan.  The thinking was that this would be an ideal time to try to merge some governance structures.  Of course, it never happened. 

I campaigned on this issue in 2008, and I managed to get myself elected, which means there must have been a number of people who agreed with me.  But I couldn't convince the rest of the Council of the day that it was a good idea, so my campaign pledge died on the vine.  The notion was resurrected just before the 2014 election, and voters approved the notion of spending some money on studying the idea. 

This led to the establishment of the "Citizen's Assembly", a truly random collection of 36 residents from both municipalities, balanced by gender, age, and place of residence.  That Assembly - at the end of a detailed and in-depth analysis - came to the conclusion that the financial impact of amalgamation probably wasn't going to be a determining factor one way or another.  Here's a quote from their report
"Many of us assumed that amalgamation would save money and hoped it would lead to lower taxes. Others feared that amalgamation would only drive up costs. As we learned from the technical study, amalgamation is likely to have only a modest impact on residential and business taxes.  On its own, amalgamation will not save much money."
Which is basically what I've been trying to say above; that both the naysayers and the folks in favour are over-stating the dollars-and-cents impact of re-uniting the municipalities. 

But a majority of the Assembly also came to the conclusion that amalgamation was the right thing to do.  Again, a quote:  
"We believe that amalgamating Duncan and North Cowichan into a single municipality will make possible lasting co-operation. Amalgamation will enhance the sustainability of our communities by strengthening our fiscal foundation and allow local government to pursue a more coordinated approach to encouraging economic growth, delivering efficient and effective public services, and ensuring that residents benefit from good local planning and strengthened environmental stewardship.  We believe amalgamation will ensure that local government in the Cowichan Valley pursues a common vision and that residents benefit from a harmonized approach to services, policies, and governance."
If I've learned anything in my ten years in local government, it's to be somewhat skeptical of "experts" -- quite often, the real wisdom lies with "ordinary folks."  And it was 36 ordinary folks with an interest in civic governance - but no axe to grind - who delivered a crystal clear message in that Citizen's Assembly report. 

I've run in three elections now; each time, my campaign has been based on the slogan "Common Sense for Community."  And irrespective of the various financial scenarios that are trotted out by either side in this debate, the "bottom line" to this discussion - for me - isn't a financial one.  It's a "Common Sense" one.  And common sense tells me that it's time to undo a mistake that was made in 1912, and re-unite these two municipalities.

I'll be voting "yes" on June 23rd. 


12 comments:

  1. An extremely helpful analysis Councillor Al Siebring. Thank you.

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  2. Thank-you for you thoughts, Mr. Siebring.

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  3. Thank you for 'stepping out of the weeds'. Whether or not we agree, Good governance demands transparency and you have offered that. Kudos.

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  4. Renters pay taxes, too, through their rent. I personally paid taxes from 1994 until December of 2017 when I had to move from my home. John Richmond and Bruce Paine, two very long serving Duncan Councillors, were not city residents, either. This is a red herring.

    Duncan's former CAO, Tom Ireland had this to say on Place Speak: "I am concerned about the future of downtown Duncan if amalgamation is approved. I think downtown Duncan will suffer significantly when tax revenues are dispersed over a much wider area than at the present time. I don't like to recall how many times I have witnessed the deterioration of urban cores around BC when Councils, anxious to line City coffers with additional tax revenues, approve peripheral developments locating there to take advantage of cheap suburban land and thereby draw the lifeblood out of the downtown core area. As a result, downtown businesses shut down or relocate. Then property values downtown decline and in desperation to attract tenants the owners eventually decrease their rental rates to the point where the types of businesses nobody really likes to see set up shop in the core area." ...amongst other points.

    We have not even had the conversation, "What's next? What is the vision of this new Municipality?" With no vision, no plan, we are walking into the dark.

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    1. Mr. Ireland is, of course, entitled to his opinion - as we all are. I'll let people gauge that one on its merits. I would only say that whether or not we amalgamate has little to do with the outcomes he talks about. The market will do what it will do; there are communities where downtowns are thriving, and communities where all the businesses etc move to the 'burbs. Those are policy decisions for the new Council to make.
      But your comment about the "red herring" deserves a response.
      On your blog post about this (at https://bit.ly/2rGJDfE), one of the points you make is that "there will be little to no Duncan representation on the new council." And this is a problem.. except where there are exceptional people like Mssr's Richmond and Pain. Then "Duncan representation" doesn't matter? Your inconsistency is somewhat alarming.
      Do you deny that there is - as a matter of demonstrable fact - "little to no Duncan representation on the existing (Duncan) Council?" Because only two of the 7 members of the present Council actually live in Duncan. Whether they rent or not is - I will admit - somewhat immaterial to this discussion. But when you talk about "representation" this way, Sharon, I would respectfully submit that you're the one with the "red herring" problem.
      For clarity, I will repeat what I wrote in my blog piece: "Even without amalgamation, decisions about tax increases and other city governance issues in Duncan are being made, in the main, by people who don't even live there." Please refute that statement if you can. I'd love to help you turn this herring a different colour.

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  5. There is a great quote attributed to the 18th century revolutionary Thomas Paine, who said “there is a mass of sense lying in a dormant state which good government should quietly harness.” Tapping into that latent intelligence should be encouraged by any government, and I think that is what we experienced with the Citizens' Assembly. Thanks Al for taking the time to read through the report and to draw attention to our findings.

    Mona Kaiser, one of the lucky 36 residents randomly selected for the Citizens' Assembly.

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    1. Such wisdom, Mona... and that Thomas Paine fellow was a pretty clever chap too. - Alec

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  6. As a member of the Citizens' Assembly... THANK YOU. This blog post beautifully echos the reason and sentiments I've been trying to impart to misinformed individuals from both Yes and No camps. While I, too, will be voting Yes, I feel a sense of civic responsibility to do what I can to help dispel misinformation on both sides of the fence, so that as many voters as possible (whatever their end vote) can approach this decision from a grounded and properly informed position as opposed to an emotional or ignorant one. - Alec

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  7. Al, great article. The citizens assembly report seems to sum everything up in an unbiased and easy to follow manner. Having been here 6 years now it was always confusing to me why we need three councils and one regional district to manage such a small population. In my opinion this is a good first step.

    Another interesting point is that even Victoria is now investigating amalgamation of 13 municipalities to just 3. Some politicians in Vic are even pointing to the progressive ways of the Cowichan Valley's experience and applauding our process.

    Thanks again Al, I may not always agree with all of your points, but you always get me thinking.

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