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UPDATE: Newmarket mayor rejects call for York Region amalgamation

'Bigger is not always better,' John Taylor says after Markham mayor makes surprise call for the province to turn York Region's nine municipalities into one big city
20200109 york region admin centre 3
York Region Administrative Centre in Newmarket. Supplied photo/Region of York

Newmarket Mayor John Taylor is pushing back against a call from Markham's mayor to consolidate York Region's nine municipalities into one big city.

In a letter released this morning, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti argued that an amalgamation could lead to considerable savings and encouraged the province to go in that direction as it reviews regional governance. He noted the province's recent moves to dissolve Peel Region and restructure Toronto city council and said the status quo shouldn't continue in York Region.

But Taylor said he can support other means to find efficiencies, but he is opposed to amalgamation. He said studies challenge the idea that it necessarily leads to savings, adding that he is frustrated to see a statement like this come out as a surprise to the regional government.

“This will distract and take away from what we should be working on,” Taylor said, including issues of affordability, homelessness, transit and the climate crisis. “This is what people want us to be doing …. This is a very valued level of government, and I think it’s time we start thinking about what the people want and not what we want.” 

The province is reviewing regional governance after annoucing last month Peel would be dissolved, with Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon operating as separate entities. Officials implied something similar could happen in York Region. Consolidation, or amalgamation, has not been mentioned as a possibility by the province, although municipal governance reviews in 2019 sparked discussion of the possibility. 

In his letter, Scarpitti said consolidation should result in savings in multiple areas, and he urged the province to create a more streamlined governance structure for the region.

“The combined operating expenses of all 10 municipal governments in York totals approximately $4.4 billion,” Scarpitti stated. “Consolidating into one city would result in significant savings in both operating and capital budgets. Municipalities invest millions in cyber security, water billing, tax billing and recreational registration systems. A consolidated city will generate substantial savings.”

But Taylor questioned whether or not those savings would really manifest. He cited research from 2014 from Western University, which found that the amalgamation process in Toronto did not reduce municipal costs and did not cut into the municipal workforce over time.

“I’m looking forward to the days ahead where we first gather data, information, public opinion and then come out with ideas and decisions,” Taylor said, adding that the best data available suggests strongly “the massive savings don’t materialize and they don’t come to fruition.”

York Region Chair Wayne Emmerson did not respond to an interview request but said in a statement that the idea was not discussed at the council table. 

“At this time, the province has not yet appointed a provincial facilitator to review the mix of roles and responsibilities within York Region’s two-tier governance structure,” Emmerson said. “Once appointed, York Region looks forward to the opportunity to explore efficiencies and to demonstrate how we work to sustain and grow strong, caring safe communities and best serve our residents.”

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs said it will not impose amalgamation in its upcoming regional governance review.

"While the review process has not yet begun, the province has no intention of unilaterally imposing amalgamations on municipalities in these areas. Facilitators will be tasked with making recommendations to ensure municipal governance structures can effectively respond to the issues facing Ontario’s fast-growing municipalities today, including tackling the housing supply crisis," the ministry said. 

Other area mayors are also coming out in opposition. Richmond Hill Mayor David West said York Region’s municipalities have unique character.

“We have things that make Richmond Hill unique and special, and people choose to live in our particular municipality,” West said. “At the end of the day, I was quite surprised to see this statement. You know, one mayor in your region does not speak for the other eight mayors.”

Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas said in a statement that he also opposed the idea of amalgamation into a single-tier "megacity."

"York Region municipalities are very distinct communities, spanning a large geographic area. We have distinct identities, histories, cultures and priorities," Mrakas said. "I have my own thoughts on how our regional government could be potentially restructured to strengthen service delivery, and I will be bringing those ideas forward shortly." 

Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk also expressed her opposition to the proposal in a statement, countering that her small town would not see the benefits touted by Scarpitti.

"I do not support the amalgamation of York Region into a single-tier municipality and am disappointed that such a statement would be made unilaterally without any type of discussion. Amalgamation is not necessary to find efficiencies and I welcome on-going discussions to explore those opportunities that would benefit all municipalities. From our historic downtowns, beautiful beaches to our rural landscapes, people come to Georgina to leave the city, not to become one," Quirk said.

Another York mayor wasn't as categorical as some of her colleagues. 

"At this time, York Regional Council has not had the opportunity to discuss the review which will affect all nine of our municipalities. Before any opinions and perspectives are shared, I think it is important to understand what is being proposed and contemplated. I look forward to learning more and participating in the provincial review and at that point I would be happy to share my perspective on this matter," said East Gwillimbury Mayor Virginia Hackson. 

Amalgamation isn't an idea that Taylor expect will get momentum. In his conversations with the province, he said was told that the governance review will be a partnership-led process.

He added that he does not think there will be a wholesale restructuring of York's regional government, but he welcomes opportunities for efficient partnerships, citing Newmarket and Aurora combining their fire services as an example.

“I’ve got to fight for Newmarket,” Taylor said, later adding that “bigger is not always better. I think that our communities value their ability to reach their elected officials on issues that affect them.” 

To Zachary Spicer, a professor of political science at York University, Scarpitti's proposal is a bit of a head-scratcher. 

"It's quite a sea change from the late 1990s and early 2000s when every mayor was vigorously opposing amalgamation. I'm not sure what Markham would get out of it," he said. 

Decades of research on amalgamation hasn't shown it to be a cost-saver, Spicer said. 

"What you're doing is creating one large government, and you're still serving the same amount of people and doing the same sort of things," he said. "The thought is that if we have one government, we wouldn't need seven mayors, or seven fire chiefs. But you don't necessarily get to eliminate jobs like that because you are still running a much more complex organization."

"In the end, you still have the same amount of people that you need to provide services to, so you can't really cut back services to save money. The savings that you get through eliminating senior positions is usually balanced out by hiring more people at the junior level," he said. 

In fact, amalgamation often has the opposite effect. 

"Costs tend to go up and property taxes tend to go up. When we look at the impact of Toronto's amalgamation, we certainly didn't see any cost savings. Costs went up substantially afterwards," Spicer said. 

Amalgamation does, however, provide for more equity through harmonizing services. 

"Lower-tier (municipalities) that had lower service levels than then the others, amalgamation brings up service levels in underserviced communities," he said. 

"You have a much larger jurisdiction under one single government, so you can take property taxes from very wealthy areas and use that to provide parks and recreation services and everything else in lower-income areas. The main benefit tends to be equity," he said. 

-With files from Aidan Chamandy and Jack Hauen

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Joseph Quigley

About the Author: Joseph Quigley

Joseph is the municipal reporter for NewmarketToday.
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