Ottawa Amalgamation 10 Year Anniversary
January 2, 2010
As Ottawa enters its 10th year of amalgamation, old foes are turning into new cheerleaders for the amalgamated city.
Once a bitter opponent of the merger, former Osgoode mayor Doug Thompson now speaks of forging a common destiny for Ottawa. He no longer believes in de-amalgamation or separation. While old wounds have not completely healed, and work remains to be done to “cement” the ideal of one Ottawa, Thompson says the amalgamated city is here to stay.
“It has taken us nine years to get here and you have to say that there’ve been more positives than negatives. We have accomplished a lot,” says Thompson, chair of the city’s rural affairs committee. “Even the Carleton landowners people (diehard proponents of separation) have changed their philosophy. Used to be they wanted to de-amalgamate, but now their message is, ‘We are looking for a new form of governance.’ That sounds good to me, rather than saying we want to separate.”
Councillor Eli El-Chantiry, who represents West Carleton-March, says most rural residents now understand that if progress is what they really want, then the future lies with the City of Ottawa — not Renfrew, Lanark or any other county.
“We’ve done very well for ourselves under amalgamation and that’s why the tactic of ‘we want to de-amalgamate, we want to be on our own’ is basically over,” says El-Chantiry. “Now these people are saying, ‘We want to work for better governance.’ Well, we should all be working for better governance no matter what level of government it is.”
But that’s not to say all doubts about amalgamation are gone. Former Nepean mayor Mary Pitt still believes amalgamation was “a big mistake,” and for Exhibit A, she says the city has become dysfunctional and “is just not working.” Councillor Marianne Wilkinson, who represents Kanata, says small issues that matter to communities “get lost in the big city” and she’d rather have her beloved Kanata back.
“We lost more than we gained,” she says.
But Wilkinson says she is pragmatic enough to understand that de-amalgamation will not happen and she has to make the best of it.
When former Ottawa mandarin and special restructuring commissioner Glen Shortliffe proposed in November 1999 the creation of one large city to replace Ottawa-Carleton’s 11 townships and cities, there were dire predictions of chaos and disaster.
Opponents warned that taxes would skyrocket, costs would spiral out of control, and services such as police, fire and road construction and maintenance would be decimated. Government by citizens would disappear, they said, as a bloated and powerful bureaucracy took over. And as towns and cities that had existed independently for more than a century lost their autonomy, 150 years of history and heritage would be wiped out.
Yet the sky did not fall. The amalgamated city functioned well enough, if haltingly at first, and it took two rural summits to soothe teething troubles. But with time, things improved so dramatically that Councillor Diane Deans calls it “the most successful amalgamation in the province of Ontario.”
While some will take issue with the superlatives, there is considerable evidence that on balance, amalgamation has served citizens well.
A 2005 city study on the impact of amalgamation found that rural residents were better off than before amalgamation in certain key areas:
Taxes: The 2005 study found that 80 per cent of homeowners in four of the five rural townships paid less in the city portion of property taxes after amalgamation than they did in 2000, the last year of regional government.
The only place property taxes went up was Goulbourn, where its pre-amalgamation taxes were unusually low. Another survey of nine average homes in different parts of the city that the regional government and, later, the city had been tracking to determine how assessment and property taxes changed over time, showed similar results. In the five years between 2000 and 2004, taxes on the houses in the five rural areas went down between 1.1 per cent and 9.3 per cent.
A comparative study of 2006 tax rates for rural Ottawa and surrounding towns like North Grenville, Mississippi Mills, Arnprior, Carleton Place and Rockland, found Ottawa rates to be the lowest.
El-Chantiry says there is no question that, excluding assessment increases, rural residents in Ottawa have had lower taxes than their counterparts in surrounding municipalities.
“The taxes in the last 10 years in the City of Ottawa for rural residents is at least 18 to 20 per cent less than our neighbouring municipalities, where taxes have gone up,” he said. “From Stormont-Dundas to Renfrew to Lanark to Carleton Place, taxes have gone up higher than rural areas within the City of Ottawa.”
Rural affairs committee: In what Thompson acknowledges to be a gigantic step forward, council established a rural affairs committee made up solely of rural councillors to deal exclusively with planning issues in their areas. Applications for new housing subdivisions in rural areas don’t go to the city’s planning committee, which is made up “primarily of suburban and urban councillors who don’t know much about rural areas.” The rural areas also have their own committee of adjustment. Thompson says rural areas are very different from the rest of the city, and the work of the rural affairs committee reflects that.
Services: A major strike against amalgamation was that key services in rural areas would be reduced as resources were spread across a much larger city. Those fears were stoked in 2003 when a 75-year-old Greely woman died after waiting more than 20 minutes for an ambulance to reach her home. She became a lightning rod for everything that was wrong with amalgamation, with Thompson and others putting the blame squarely on the merger. The city acknowledged the problem, and since that stuttering start, Thompson says rural services have improved remarkably. So much has been invested in new fire and police stations, arenas, ambulances, road construction and maintenance and other services that few are complaining about a lack of services.
“The city has made huge investments in those areas and when I see how much money the city spends, I am very happy,” El-Chantiry says.
“We started off slow, but we are getting some major projects done. We’ve had good success in many areas,” agrees Thompson.
But problems remain, and even amalgamation’s most ardent supporters don’t claim it’s a runaway success.
Thompson and El-Chantiry say a lot of work is needed to breach the gulf between rural residents and a bureaucracy that many still feel is alien from them. Issues such as amending bylaws to make them uniform across the city and, lately, the green-bin program, speak to a continuing lack of understanding of rural life.
“Even after nine years, there’s still a difference between the rural lifestyle and the suburban and urban lifestyle, and there will always be a difference,” Thompson says.
“If we are going to keep the city together as one entity, we need to go to a modified system that is different from what we have right now. I hope in the next four years we are able to work towards a new governance model that we can use for the rural areas.”
This is where the urban-rural divide rears its ugly head. All sides agree on the need for some structural changes to strengthen the city, but strengthening the city means different things to different people.
Rural councillors look at the city and say the problem is that the governance system has entrenched the alienation of their constituents. In a big city, it’s difficult for their residents to be heard, and for their particular needs to be met. They want a new structure that could be modelled on a borough system to give them money and power to deal with things such as fixing potholes, minor repairs to arenas and approval of building permits, without involving City Hall.
“There has to be a better way of dealing with the small issues that seem to take a lot of time to get through the bureaucracy,” Thompson says.
Urbanites, however, see the problem — and the solution — differently.
Former regional chair and mayor Bob Chiarelli says council doesn’t work as well as it could because the governance structure has become a victim of ward politics, with little or no voice given to the larger issues that affect the city’s future.
He and others such as University of Ottawa governance expert Caroline Andrew say a new governance system should, primarily, allow more councillors to be elected at-large to champion a larger vision for the city. Others have suggested turning provincial and federal ridings into wards to broaden councillors’ perspective.
Andrew says because Ottawa — indeed, all of Ontario — uses the “weak-mayor system,” in which the mayor has no executive power, it matters greatly how council is structured. If a mayor is saddled with a council that is consumed by ward politics and little vision, it could hurt the city.
“If you are a mayor with no allies, what can you do?” she says.
Chiarelli says now may be the time to “fine-tune” amalgamation and improve governance, and Thompson says important changes could be made by council if it can muster the will.
“It is going to take some resolve from councillors to say we are going to do this,” he says.
But if the past is any guide, it won’t be easy.