When there is a lull in political discourse in the Capital region, or if some thorny issue arises that pits one municipality against another, then we hear the volume turned up on the arguments for amalgamation. We’ve heard such arguments recently from Edmonton’s Chamber of Commerce. And many casual observers in Edmonton might agree. Of course, if you’re in St. Albert, Sherwood Park, Leduc or Spruce Grove you probably have a different view. But Edmonton is the biggest, most powerful entity in the area and naturally its voice is pretty loud.
“Let’s just make one big municipality,” the proponents say. “It’ll be much more efficient and we can stop the endless bickering.”
Perhaps. But if putting an end to bickering is the motivation, shouldn’t we consider the true cost of peace before we plunge headlong into such a scheme. While there may be some theoretical advantage in planning, service delivery and coordination with a single municipal government, the likely reality is much less Utopian.
Any municipal government operation, large or small, suffers from varying degrees of disorganization and competency. The quality of political leadership, the bureaucratic culture and the abilities of the people working for the entity all have a bearing. The harsh reality is that if these government structures didn’t have the advantage of monopoly, they would never survive the commercial marketplace. But they are competing now in what we could call a marketplace of municipalities. Amalgamation will destroy that.
It’s odd that the Edmonton Chamber, populated with business leaders who succeeded by winning the competitive battles in their respective marketplaces, would be advocating against competition and the Darwinian improvements it brings. Amalgamation means a reduction in regional competition in housing, a reduction in regional competition for industry, a reduction in regional competition in services and taxes. These competitions hold costs down, result in service improvements, and deliver better value in the long run. Isn’t that what the taxpayers want? And deserve?
And it’s not just the stifling of inter-municipality competition that should have us nervous about amalgamation. There’s the most obvious pitfall: size. Increasing the size of an organization is no guarantee of improvement in anything, except the bulk of the political and administrative bureaucracy required to support it. In the new economic order, where small is the new big and being nimble is a primary asset for competing on the global stage, how can creating an increasingly large basket for our ever more complex eggs be an advantage? The proponents use the “only one taxpayer” argument to advocate for the simplicity of a single large municipal structure. But using that same theory, that one taxpayer in Sherwood Park, should see a benefit whether the new widget factory is built in his community or in Stony Plain.
If Edmonton City Council wants to be taken seriously (and sincerely) its regional talks with others, we need to admit that we want to grow, but also that we accept that undermining or outright eliminating other players in the region is not in the long term interest of all the taxpayers in the region. Instead of being seen as the big bully, prepared to ask the Province to bludgeon the other municipalities into submission, we need to compete robustly for business, industry and commerce against our smaller, more nimble and more creative neighbours. We can do that by reducing the transactional burdens within our own jurisdiction. Edmonton should strive to be the best, the fastest, the simplest and easiest body to work with in the area. That’s what I’ll be advocating for on Council.
I don’t see a viable, smooth, efficient answer in amalgamation. I see each municipality with its own particular appeal and its own unique challenges. I don’t think importing one area’s problems and exporting another’s is a workable solution to the demands of 21st century growth. There are better solutions. There are faster solutions. But it’s going to take some clearly stated principles from the players involved and the leadership to carry them through.