The mega-merger mania that enveloped Ontario in the 1990s — starting in Southwestern Ontario and radiating to the rest of the province — failed to save money or generate huge efficiencies.
That’s the assessment of new report by the Fraser Institute, a conservative think-tank that says the cost savings the province promised “never materialized.”
Report author Lydia Miljan said some benefits to mergers included better development planning, so amalgamations can’t be considered a total flop.
“It’s a bit more complicated than, ‘Was it just a pass or a fail?’ (But) if it’s just a question of cost savings, yes, it was a fail.”
In the mid-1990s, the province ordered Kent County towns and townships and the City Chatham to amalgamate into a single Municipality of Chatham-Kent, following years of acrimonious debate.
The new structure would save millions, cut bureaucracy and boost efficiency, the Progressive Conservatives under Premier Mike Harris said. They urged others to follow Chatham-Kent — voluntarily or involuntarily.
The number of municipalities dropped to almost half of their previous 800-plus.
Other studies have analyzed costs pre- and post-amalgamation. This report also compares a sampling of amalgamated and non-amalgamated communities.
Bob Wood, then the PC MPP for London South, said cost savings was never his motivation as an amalgamation advocate. “What I saw them as doing was resulting in a better-functioning municipality.”
Warwick Mayor Todd Case said Chatham-Kent was “sort of the poster boy” of how the province wanted restructuring to take place as it urged communities to merge.
So they did, and quickly. “Some municipalities maybe hit the panic button because they felt they were going to be forced into it,” Case said.
For Warwick and Watford, where co-operation turned into amalgamation, the process was less painful than elsewhere.
Costs still increased, partly because the province downloaded programs to local governments. “What we’ve seen is that bigger is not always better.”
Chatham-Kent Coun. Joe Faas served as Dresden’s mayor from 1990 until it became part of Chatham-Kent in 1998.
He said there have been positives and negatives since, but that it’s long been considered a done deal.
“We can’t go back,” he said. “Things are in my opinion working fairly smoothly.”
With files from Trevor Terfloth, Chatham Daily News
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AMONG THE FINDINGS
- Significant increases in property taxes, salaries and wages and long-term debt, in amalgamated and non-amalgamated communities. Amalgamated communities did no better financially, and many did worse, than those that didn’t merge.
- Download the full report at fraserinstitute.org