When the Mike Harris Government took power in Ontario in 1995, it came as a shock to many. What was even more shocking was the new PC Government’s decision to implement what they called their Common Sense Revolution, a plan to cut the size of government across the province and to cut taxes. Among the many policies which made up the Revolution, many copied from the Thatcher government in the U.K., was a plan to cut the number of municipal councillors, mayors, and staff through the amalgamation of as many of the 815 municipalities in Ontario as possible.
In January, 1996, the Harris Government passed the Savings and Restructuring Act to reduce the number of municipalities, and by 2001 these were reduced to 444. It should be noted that this was not a voluntary move by the province’s lower levels of government. Al Leach, the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, told municipal politicians exactly what the situation was:
“You really have two choices when it comes to restructuring. One is to do it yourself – develop your own restructuring with majority support of the municipalities affected…the other is to have it done for you by a local restructuring commission. If the commission is appointed, it will develop and implement its own proposal, and you will pay for it”. The Minister also pointed out that there would be no appeal once restructuring plans were implemented.
What was involved in this restructuring process was the biggest change in municipal organisation in Ontario since 1845. Many of the municipalities and villages which had existed independently for generations would now cease to exist. Historic identities and loyalties would be subsumed into new entities, all in order that lower tier expenses could be cut, taxes reduced, and the number of public service workers cut back.
In fact, a Fraser Institute Report in 2015 found that the entire amalgamation project had failed in almost every aspect. While the number of mayors, reeves and councillors across Ontario was reduced by almost a quarter, the number of municipal employees rose by almost 40%. The rise in the number of municipal employees in amalgamated municipalities was twice that of those left unrestructured. Part of this was due to the need to hire more clerks and bureaucrats to administer much larger municipalities with larger populations. In addition, the Common Sense Revolution also involved downloading many services from the Province to the municipalities and Counties, and there was a resulting increase in municipal taxes to pay for these extra services. The Province, according to the Fraser Report, provided “no significant funding” to help ease the transition for municipalities.
Minister Leach was convinced that the opposite would be the case after amalgamation. On January 17, 1997, he had stated: “When you add up the figures on both sides of the ledger, you see that municipalities will have tax room to manoeuver with. By the year 2000, municipalities should have enough room to reduce property taxes by up to 10 per cent”. Reports and papers published since then have consistently shown that the Harris Government did not have sufficient research data to know what the actual costs of amalgamation would be. Nor did they make any attempt to help the new municipalities to adapt to the new system. The position of the government in Queen’s Park was that the amalgamating bodies should figure things out for themselves, rather than have “big Government” dictate the new model for them. Al Leach claimed that it would take a generation before the benefits of amalgamation would become clear.
All of this hit the people of Oxford-on-Rideau, South Gower and the Town of Kemptville as something of a shock in 1996. It was understood that some form of amalgamation process would need to be in place before the next municipal election, due in November, 1997. If the Harris government were not going to get involved, it would be up to the mayors, reeves and councillors of the three areas, along with their staff, to put together the plans for a new municipality. The same problems faced the people of Merrickville and Wolford. This process was neither easy or without conflict, and will be the subject of future articles in the Times.