Earlier this week, a roundtable of 20 business leaders were asked by Regional Chair Alan Caslin two simple questions: the first was “Do you support the Regional Chair and Budget Chair’s view that a 0% tax levy increase will be the best levy option for Niagara businesses to grow, and that the Region begin work to develop a region-wide debt reduction strategy?” and the second was “What suggestions do you have where there is waste and/or duplication that could be eliminated to find savings that would keep taxes low for Niagara businesses and residents?” Question one was unanimously supported. Question two made strong headlines and led to passionate conversations in boardrooms throughout the region. At the roundtable meeting, suggestions ranged from creating one city, the City of Niagara, to not just freezing the budget, but rather cutting it. Phrases like “unsustainable” and “ending the gravy train” along with some austerity suggestions dominated the conversation.
Every enterprise in Niagara is conducting business differently today compared to just a few years back. Businesses have learnt to move their self-interests to the side and collaborate with other companies, outsource where necessary, right-size where needed, and innovate without fail to stay competitive, attract new customers and explore opportunities.
These measures take courage, commitment and vision. Therefore, it is no surprise that the private sector is frustrated with the current state of local governments, frustrated enough to ask for drastic changes in governance.
Is the solution one level of government, one City of Niagara? It might be, but that comes with challenges as well. Rationales cited for the amalgamation of municipalities are the reductions to the cost of government, taxes and the size of government. All very sound goals. Historically, outcomes have been mixed. Analysis done by organizations such as the Institute of Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG) and Western University show that the results of amalgamation fell short of some expectations. In 1995, Ontario’s 850 municipalities employed 160,000 people or 15.8 municipal workers per thousand residents. By 2010, the number of municipalities had shrunk to 444, but employment jumped to 270,000 people, or 20.9 workers per thousand residents. On the upside, households and business experienced a decrease in taxes.
An amalgamated Niagara would be no different considering the potential cost of such services as full-time fire departments for all municipalities, along with a hike in wages when merging collective bargaining units.
This does not mean that amalgamation would be a failure just because “economies of scale” and savings can not be realized. In many cases, municipalities are better run, more agile and better positioned to compete. A unified Niagara would decrease the investment burden for businesses and increase time given to opportunities. We would work as one strong entity versus twelve competing self-interests.
Ultimately, municipal restructuring requires a degree of support from the municipalities and support from Niagara residents before being submitted to the Minister for approval, something that could be a long and painful process, potentially leaving a lot of scars.
One thing is clear, the private sector is rightfully demanding more from 13 Niagara administrations. They are asking for collaboration versus parochialism; efficiencies versus overlapping duties, duplication and extensive bureaucracy; accountability instead of increased spending.
As in Alan Caslin’s words the Region does not “create jobs; you do. You’re the ones responsible for our economic prosperity in this region.” Then the local governments need to become serious in their support of employers. The focus areas are clear. Make regional transit work. Be open for development by reducing red tape and levels of bureaucracy. Partner with the private sector to deliver services more efficiently. Support businesses by reducing costs to do business.
As with all organizations, our strength is not in tomorrow but in today. And right now is the best time to collaborate and create efficiencies. Let’s have the courage and commitment to move forward and let’s keep all options on the table while we do so.
Mishka Balsom is the CEO and President of The Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce.