The provincially appointed facilitator for the Niagara Region will be named next week. Normally, I try to stick to electricity matters in my blog but as this could have a direct impact on NOTL Hydro I thought I would weigh in with a few thoughts.
Let me start by saying I recognize there is some self-interest involved. I am the President of NOTL Hydro. Should the review lead to Niagara-on-the-Lake disappearing as an independent municipality then the likelihood is NOTL Hydro would also end up as part of a larger utility. Given our strong performance (rates, reliability, service) it is hard to see that this would be an improvement for our customers. This is why NOTL Hydro has never merged with another utility; the NOTL Hydro Board never saw a benefit to customers in this.
The following are my thoughts on the Niagara Region review:
- I believe municipal borders should match the underlying economic entity as much as possible. Larger cities such as Toronto, Montreal and, locally, St. Catharines have grown as previous independent cities, towns and villages have grown and merged so that their boundaries are no longer distinguishable. The Niagara Region still has a number of clearly distinct economic entities. St.Catharines, Niagara Falls and Grimsby are all clearly different economic areas. I would add Niagara-on-the-Lake to this list as its industries are clearly different from its neighbours and its boundaries (Lake Ontario, Niagara River, the escarpment and the canal) are clear dividers.
- There likely is some minimal size below which it does not make sense to be independent. This would explain the creation of municipalities such as Lincoln, West Lincoln and Fort Erie which are aggregations of smaller villages and towns. I do not pretend to know what the minimal size should be but, based on my experience, it does not have to be very large. Niagara-on-the-Lake is clearly large enough to be independent.
- The current model does appear to need to be changed. There does not seem to be much support locally or provincially for the two-tiered model. In theory, the two-tiered model makes sense. Some services, such as wastewater treatment and policing, make sense to be delivered at a regional scale while others, such as recreation services and local infrastructure maintenance, is better handled locally. I think the problem is that nobody identifies with the region. Nobody says they are from the Niagara Region; you say you are from Welland or Port Colborne. As such, there is not the oversight of the Region as there is of local councils by local citizens. There is also no regional newspaper. We should therefore expect the review to recommend some sort of change.
- There will not be any real savings. No amalgamation or restructuring has ever achieved real savings and in most cases I suspect costs have gone up. There is some room for efficiencies but these will be offset by other costs. The true goal is better alignment of service delivery and governance.
- The argument about their being too many politicians in Niagara is a red herring. The argument that Niagara has 126 politicians while Hamilton has 15 misses some key points. First of all, most of the politicians are local councillors so are only paid part time salaries. I believe the average is between $20-30k. Comparing just the raw numbers without their respective cost is a misrepresentation. Second, a key part of local government is easy access to elected representatives so that local issues can be addressed. Too few representatives means this aspect of governance is lost. There is probably room for some reduction but we should not lose sight of the value that local representation brings. Also, most councillors I have met are driven by a desire to help. We want to value and respect the contributions that these councillors make.
- The review and the political maneuvering around it will be messy. That is the nature of our political process. There will be winners and losers in the change and there are a large number of competing interests championing their cause or perspective. I just hope the final result is truly in the best interests of the residents of the Niagara Region including the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake.