Toronto and amalgamation. Flashback 1998.

Post by Eric Mang in ,

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Toronto before amalgamationI realize that I’m about 11 years too late, but recent comments by past Toronto mayors got me thinking about the amalgamation of Toronto and the ill effects we’re still feeling.  

On January 1, 1998, under the guise of saving money, the Harris Conservatives amalgamated Toronto. Of course, in typical Harris fashion (which displays anything but beneficence to cities, never mind Toronto), the Tories didn’t bother with a serious debate, largely ignoring key issues like regional planning and whether bigger was necessarily better.

If we invoke Haldane’s Principle, we usually find that bigger things are more complex.

And so became an amalgamated Toronto.

Upon reflecting about Toronto’s history, former Mayors John Sewell and June Rowlands said amalgamation damaged Toronto.

 In a Toronto Star interview, Sewell recalled the benefits of having a two-tiered local government:

"Toronto's finer achievements are in the past," he said. "The megacity is a great disaster for Toronto. It has immobilized the city ... made politics very difficult for politicians and the city."

He spoke of the "glory days" when city hall looked after local issues and the Metro government managed transit, police, ambulance and social services – allowing the city to "take a regional and local perspective at the same time."

"It created the magic that was Toronto. Metro (government) is the reason we've had so many social programs ... housing, daycare, community and recreation programs ... most of it free."

To make my (and Rowlands' and Sewell's) point, I'm going to get a little academic on you.

In “Merger mania: The assault on local government”, Andrew Sancton (2000) argues that amalgamation does not deliver what it promises. He finds that there do not appear to be savings post-amalgamation in Laval, New York City and Toronto. In each city, post-amalgamation savings were promised but failed to materialize.

Sancton also warns that unfairness can result because distributive efforts following amalgamation do not always occur. For example, in Winnipeg, it was thought that the new Unicity would ensure that well-off suburbs would subsidize revitalization in the crumbling inner city. Instead, suburban infrastructure projects, supported by suburban councillors, received investment to the detriment of the inner city.

Further beating down the Harris government’s rigid ideology, there seems to be little evidence supporting amalgamation as a vehicle for economic development. Sancton notes: “…no case has been made concerning why businesses might prefer locating in a large municipality rather than a small one, when other factors are held constant” (p. 13).

Sancton sees a better option for cities through intensified regional co-operation. That is, the model of pre-amalgamated two-tier Metro Toronto where cooperation was needed to deliver some services at an overarching Metro level while local municipalities delivered services closer to citizens.

Today, our city’s operational budget struggles under the load of increased welfare costs. While it may be too late to turn back, let it be a lesson to every politician of the consequences of crass politicking and parochial ideology supplanting rigorous policy analysis. I’m not optimistic that this lesson will be learned, but I can make the statement.

On a positive note: My wife, daughter and I went down to City Hall on Friday to witness the very modest 175th birthday celebrations. The highlights were: meeting Matt Galloway, the wickedly articulate host of my favourite radio program, CBC’s “Here and Now”; and, having Mayor David Miller read Dr. Seuss to my daughter. We were walking through City Hall, looking at historical pics of Toronto, when Miller saw my daughter smile at him. Instead of picking her up and kissing her for the cameras, he knelt down beside her, she handed him “ABC” and he read her the first couple of pages. That was worth the trip.

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