Over the past few months, the towns of Penetanguishene and Midland have paired up on a number of initiatives, including transit, fire services, and library facilities. That has a few folks worried about the possibility of the two communities amalgamating into one. To help alleviate those concerns, Penetanguishene Mayor Gerry Marshall has penned an open letter to his residents, which we’ve posted below.
Please find below my open letter to the media regarding my personal perspective on sharing services amongst municipalities.
I understand and appreciate that the words “shared services and resources” and “amalgamation” can bring an unsettled feeling to residents and ratepayers. It’s natural that there can be a fear of sharing and a fear of the unexplored. This fear may be that at some point, what can possibly be entertained is amalgamation – the joining of communities, services, and some argue even our community identities. But once you drop the “A” word, the debate will be based on emotion rather than evidence or potential outcomes. Personally, I think that if the current councils and the councils of the 2018-22 council term continue to seek opportunities to share with one another, fill job vacancies with shared employees and that if that sharing proves to be beneficial, that citizens in both communities will eventually demand a formal consideration of a one-town, one-council scenario because they will have seen that it is only beneficial and there is no loss of community identity. I suspect the 2022 election could be an interesting one.
To be clear and until otherwise proven, I am not pro-amalgamation. I am pro sharing services and resources. I am pro contracted relationships that lead to greater efficiencies and cost savings for residents while improving services. Sharing does not have to be exclusively between Midland and Penetanguishene. Sharing needs to occur with the best fit partner(s). The best fit may at times be one on one with Tiny, Tay, Midland or the County. In some cases, the best fit may be with all five of us working together.
I point to the 2015 Fraser Institute publication by Professor Lydia Miljan and Post-Doctorate Fellow Zachary Spicer, who wrote that “the 1990s and 2000s were tumultuous decades for Ontario municipalities. Hundreds of municipalities across the provinces were amalgamated amid claims that restructuring would produce local governments that would be more efficient and less costly. Taxpayers, it was argued, would benefit from lower costs and lower taxes”. Many studies were conducted to examine these claims, largely finding that the claimed benefits did not materialize.
Rather than looking at Ontario’s largest urban centers such as Toronto, Miljan and Spicer focused their attention on three smaller amalgamated municipalities – Haldimand-Norfolk, Essex, and Kawartha Lakes. Using data for the years 2000 to 2012 they compared various financial indicator trends to a number of comparable municipalities that were not amalgamated.
Their analysis suggests amalgamation did not result in cost savings or lower property taxes in the cases they examined. Further, they found “significant increases in property taxes, compensation for municipal employees, and long-term debt in both amalgamated and unamalgamated communities suggesting that there was no tangible, financial benefit from amalgamation” and “in most cases, the per-household municipal tax burden increased” and “that spending on certain services and remuneration also increased significantly”.
One of the key learnings of the study was that the amalgamated communities made quick decisions about governance and servicing issues without the benefit of time or access to comparable information and best practices. This is why it was crucial that our shared service relationships with the Town of Midland (Transit/Fire/Building) were set as 24 month contracts. At the end of the 24 months, both councils will weigh the pros and the cons and make move-forward decisions based on evidence rather than speculation. For me this is clearly the right approach. If sharing of services turns out as I sense it may, I would support a regional shared administration model that would allow us to remain as stand-alone municipalities complete with our own councils.
Sharing services and resources does not equal a loss of identity for Penetanguishene, nor does it equal a loss of our bilingual nature. We can still remain a town, we can still have our own council, we can still have our own policies and bylaws.
With all this in mind, exploring the brave new world is the right thing to do and fearing the unexplored will only hinder us. We must seek today to do the right things at the right time and let the governance conversation naturally occur.
Mayor Town of Penetanguishene,