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The City Must Die!

Greater Sudbury was a mistake. Mike Harris forced amalgamation on the city and it failed. It is time for council to start de-amalgamation proceedings.

The City of Greater Sudbury is a very recent experiment. It was was formed on January 1, 2001, as recommended by the Report to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing on Local Government Reform for Sudbury. The new City bundled towns and cities of the Regional Municipality of Sudbury with 9 unincorporated townships.

The result was the 24th largest metropolitan area in Canada. By land area, it is the largest city in Ontario and the seventh largest municipality by area in Canada.sudbury-ward-map

The pieces that went into the pie, including the Regional Municipality of Sudbury, were all newly created in 1973 by amalgamating several smaller towns and townships.

The 1999 legislation that did the dirty work was called “The Fewer Municipal Politicians Act.” Ironically it repealed several sections of “The Better Local Government Act” of 1996.

The name of the Act pretty well goes a long way to explaining why the Harris government thought amalgamation was a good idea: The goal was to get rid of politicians. Objective number one was “less government resulting from fewer municipalities and fewer politicians.” Apparently politicians are a big cost. Taken to its logical limit, the ideal and cheapest system would be a dictatorship.

Politicians are a cost of course – a cost of a democracy. Local politics is the training ground for provincial and federal politicians. Local politics is where people get involved in managing their own affairs. “The Fewer Municipal Politicians Act” set out to tear up the roots of the democratic system.

Besides a dislike for local politicians, the Harris government had a surprising faith in big government. Objective three was “efficient service delivery, including reduced overlap and captured spillovers.” The government thought larger organization would be cheaper to run. They believed in what economists call “scale efficencies.”

Numerous studies have looked at whether there are or are not economies of scale in local government. Most of the studies suggest that rather than saving costs, amalgamation increases costs. A recent study of towns and cities in New Your State, for, example, found that very small communities have higher average costs because of their size. It also found that that larger communities have higher average costs because of their size. According to Lawrence Southwick, author of Economies of Scale in Local Government: General Government Spending (2012), the sweet spot is “somewhere between 4600 and 25,200.” Sudbury is not in the sweet spot.

James Cuddy’s recent study for the Northern Policy Institute found in fact that all but one expenditure increased after Sudbury’s amalgamation. Data was not available to show whether services increased or decreased, nor for whom they increased or decreased. The growing infrastructure deficit suggests that costs would have increased a lot more if city council had been not been running down the capital stock.

If Mr Harris had been driven by data rather than ideology he would not have forced amalgamation on the region. The evidence showed that amalgamation would inevitably increase the cost per capita of governing the people for the Sudbury region.

The Harris government had three other objectives in forcing amalgamation. It wanted “an accessible and accountable representation system.” Amalgamation was effective in reducing accessibility.

The government wanted “growth and development.” Amalgamation was irrelevant for this goal, and clearly failed to achieve this goal for Sudbury. The final objective, “municipal self sufficiency by delivering municipal services funded by municipal sources” was really about downloading costs to the municipality. That was a success. Amalgamation was a smokescreen for downloading.

The evidence is now in and we know the experiment has failed. The City of Greater Sudbury is not more efficient than the separate community governments. It is also not more democratic.

To be fair, Harris and his crew probably believed that getting rid of a whole level of government would be an improvement. Prior to amalgamation, each town and city in the regional municipality had its own mayor and council, and provided many of its own municipal services. The Regional Municipality also had a regional council and chairman of its own, and provided certain region-wide services. It may have seemed obvious that a two-level system couldn’t work as well as a single-level municipality.

The problem is that to manage local affairs Harris replaced a level of largely volunteer politicians with a level of highly paid city employees who were much farther from the citizens they served. The part-timer who mowed the soccer field before the Thursday game became an employee of the central city who mowed the field Monday morning at 9 am.

No one has ever presented any evidence that overall services improved in the new city. No one even tried to collect the data. Amalgamation was driven by ideology.

And it has failed. It is time to cut the city up into natural communities with their own councils. It is time to recreate a regional council to deal with shared services and to allocate the costs of regional roads. It is probably time to dismantle the regional school board as well. The Conservative vision of big, cheap government has failed.

I’m calling on City Council to begin de-amalgamation. The goals are clear: to reduce costs and to improve democracy the City of Greater Sudbury must die!

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