An era came to an end along with the last days of 1997. The South Gower Council met for the last time on December 9, marking the end of the separate municipality that had been in existence for two hundred years. To mark the end, in a departure from normal procedure, the resolution to adjourn the final Council meeting was signed by all five members of Council.
Oxford-on-Rideau also marked the last days as a separate municipality in that cold December, the oldest original township in the new Township of North Grenville, ready to rejoin the separated brethren of Kemptville who had struck out on their own in 1857 and were now becoming part of the new municipality.
The Kemptville Council’s life did not end as cleanly. Although the last official meeting was to be on December 15, there remained outstanding a question over the sale of some town property which had not been finalised in time. So, on December 17, the property transaction finally completed, the Town of Kemptville ended its days as an independent entity and joined the other two in beginning a new era.
Even then, this most historic moment, the first meeting of the New Township of North Grenville municipal council, was overshadowed by an even more unusual event: the Great ice Storm of 1998, which struck the area that same week. It was a baptism of fire for the new council and municipal staff, and the use of the W. B. George Centre at the Kemptville College campus was, perhaps, a symbolic bringing together of the residents of the new municipality.
All of the heart-searching, debate, controversy and conflict that had marked the formation of the new regime had been initiated by the provincial government’s desire to cut costs, make municipal government more efficient and streamlined, and to relieve Queen’s Park of a great deal of expense by downloading services to the new amalgamated bodies. The question in January, 1998 was: will it work? Will it be a successful experiment, or not?
The claims made for amalgamation were ambitious: taxes would go down; there would be far fewer municipal employees and councillors, and therefore a less costly municipal structure. In May 2015, the Fraser Institute, a public policy think-tank, published a report on the effects of Municipal Amalgamation in Ontario. It examined the impact on property taxes in the municipalities, and concluded that none of the anticipated cost savings had occurred. On the contrary, it found municipal taxes had significantly increased. In almost all cases, the study found that there had been significant increases in property taxes, in staffing costs for municipal employees, and long term debt for the municipalities between 2000 and 2012. Not only so, but the report found that un-amalgamated and amalgamated municipalities experienced similar impacts, suggesting there was no tangible benefit to amalgamation at all.
The Fraser Institute study tried to discover why amalgamation had not lived up to its promise, and found that many of the unexpected consequences should have, in face, been expected. There was not enough financial support provided by the province during the transition phase, especially when amalgamation was accompanied by downloading of new services to the municipalities, including a much higher policing cost structure. There was not enough time given to municipalities to develop a realistic system, something which councillors in all three municipalities in this area had complained about at the time. Other concerns raised throughout 1997 were also found to be well-founded. Before 1998, Oxford-on-Rideau and South Gower were supplied with OPP services at no cost. North Grenville faced annual policing charges of $1.5 million from 1998. Staffing costs did not go down, because the newly amalgamated municipality required far more staff, at a higher cost to taxpayers. At one point in 1997, it was assumed that there would be a total of eight staff needed for the new North Grenville. That assumption was quickly proved to be completely unrealistic. Failure to adequately consult the public taxpayers led to antagonism against the new system, including among those councillors who had opposed amalgamation and set out to prove themselves right.
This year, we will be electing the same number of councillors to run a much bigger and more complex municipality than the people of South Gower had a century ago, and less than Kemptville had since 1857. The effects of the 1998 amalgamation project are still with us, twenty years later, and it remains with us to sort it all out.