When campaigning to be mayors and deputy mayors in 2018, Haliburton County candidates were asked about amalgamation.
In his opening remarks to a debate audience at Haliburton School of Art + Design, Minden Hills mayor Brent Devolin was the only candidate to address the issue.
“Our current municipal structure of 24 persons in 32 political positions in a County of less than 20,000 permanent residents [now 20,571] is not sustainable,” he said at the time.
He added, “A four-year term of council is enough to assess, consider, plan and execute the possible changes in time for a municipal election in 2022.”
During question period, voter Patrick Walshe pushed the issue, saying, “I really don’t want to hear you guys say we should talk about it or we might talk about it. I think amalgamation has to be looked at.”
More than three years after that debate, there has been no study into a governance review for Haliburton County and its four lower-tier municipalities.
Instead, there has been a service delivery review, paid for by the province, “to understand, identify, and evaluate opportunities to achieve a more efficient and effective service delivery model across the Haliburton municipalities while maintaining adequate service levels.” Haliburton County CAO Mike Rutter said, “The focus of staff is really not on the governance question. Our focus has been on ensuring there is a process in place that will provide our councils with sufficient information to make decisions on the [service delivery review’s] recommendations.”
Warden Liz Danielsen said they are already working to eliminate duplication and streamline the way things are done via the ongoing service delivery review – which is expected to take until 2023 to complete.
She noted that every department at every municipality is taking part in the discussions. For example, the warden said they know contractors who work in all four townships are in some cases dealing with four different sets of rules.
“Even if we can resolve something like that, we’ve made progress,” she said.
Service delivery review first
She emphasized the service delivery review will have to play out before there is talk of a governance review.
Danielsen added, “Just because there’s duplication doesn’t mean that we have to amalgamate to resolve the issue.” She said amalgamation might eventually be the answer but she’s not convinced of widespread council support.
“Obviously, all of this started with thoughts of amalgamation. It’s fine to say ‘we need to amalgamate and stamp our feet’ but that doesn’t mean we need to amalgamate. Is it the answer? Will it be cheaper? We’ve seen some examples where it’s not cheaper?”
Devolin said it isn’t necessarily about saving money. “This is about being more efficient and getting value for money.”
Danielsen said she’s personally come around to the point where “I am open.” She said the service delivery review process “has opened my eyes. You find yourself thinking, maybe we should be doing this, that or the other. More councillors may be coming to that conclusion. Maybe amalgamation is inevitable.”
Devolin has never wavered.
When he announced in the fall that he won’t be seeking a third term as mayor, he said one of his greatest regrets is that he was not able to push his colleagues to consolidate local government. In a lengthy interview, he elaborated “I still think that 32 political positions for a population of less than 20,000 people [now 20,571] is absurd.”
He said COVID has caused an explosion of growth in the Highlands and highlighted labour shortages in municipal government.
He said it’s easier to attract candidates to larger governments. With a background in forestry and cars, he added those industries had to consolidate to survive and it’s no different for local government. “I’m just a huge believer in a proactive stance rather than a reactive stance.” That being said, the current provincial government has no plans to move forward with changes to regional governments, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
Rather, “The province encourages municipalities to look for opportunities to work together and supports locally-developed solutions that are mutually beneficial,” Conrad Spezowka said. As for Walshe, he thinks the service delivery review does not go far enough.
“If we’re doing a performance analysis and it is going to be made by cutting jobs, for example, and your job is going to be cut, how objective are you going to be? I’m not saying you’re dishonest or disloyal, but it is far from a thorough review of them managing funds, and providing the best level of government in this part of the world.”
He thinks there would be “a whole other level of service improvements, streamlining and a gazillion other benefits” that would come from amalgamation. “This is 2022. We can’t be running things the way we were in 1982. It makes no sense. I don’t think there’s any real thirst for meaningfully improving the services government brings to this part of the world. We’re still stuck in the 1980s.”
Next week: It isn’t about saving money
How County councillors feel about a governance review
Dysart et al mayor Andrea Roberts
I think there is so much on County council’s plate right now what with the shoreline bylaw still not resolved and now we have started the process for a short-term rental review.
I would say the issue of municipal governance in general will become a hot election topic. Amalgamation has been talked about before, but there has never been a review on if it would actually be better or worse for the people of Haliburton County. It will be interesting to see where things start to go once the election period begins.
Dysart et al deputy mayor Pat Kennedy
I do think that eventually we will move to a single tier.
Fiscal savings as a result of such a decision? Doubt it, and in many instances operational costs and property taxes (especially for the taxpayers of Dysart) will increase. I still believe, as I did in 2018, that a confederation model is the best approach, where services are assigned to upper or lower tier. This to me is the most efficient model while still remaining responsive to local challenges.
Minden Hills mayor Brent Devolin has always supported having a single-tier government. [See quotes in story]
Minden Hills deputy mayor Lisa Schell
To be honest, I’ve never had a strong opinion one way or the other regarding having a one-tier governance; however, I have been a strong proponent of the [services delivery] review in order to see if it makes sense financially. I think if it is established that it is feasible financially, a governance review would definitely be warranted as well.
Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt
I believe the County needs a governance review not only because it’s our responsibility to continually assess our raison d’etre, but also because the phrase “form follows function” is part of our commitment to the service delivery review.
I’ve done a lot of research on governance models and while there are no financial savings to be had in moving to single-tier, the public may prefer the efficiencies of one bylaw or fire department, or a countywide landfill system. However, if the upper and lower tiers reconfigure their working relationships in accordance with the recommendations of the SDR, a full-on amalgamation may not be necessary. Either way, when the time comes, there’s going to have to be a detailed analysis of potential gains and losses so that the difference is clearly understood. For me, the pandemic has brought to light myriad more reasons to have that review in order to genuinely craft this community’s future.
Algonquin Highlands deputy mayor Liz Danielsen said she is open-minded about the possibility. [See quotes in story]
Highlands East mayor David Burton
My viewpoint hasn’t changed during the service delivery review. We are mid-stream going through the recommendations of the final service delivery review report and a discussion of governance would be premature at this point. I am pleasantly surprised on how many joint initiatives that are transpiring now.
Highlands East deputy mayor Cec Ryall
I believe that a single level government for Haliburton County will eventually happen. However, my position has been and continues to be that we need to complete the majority of the service delivery review before we consider how the County is governed. So far, we have investigated, and in some cases resolved, many challenges that were identified and those solutions will contribute to a stronger Haliburton County. Items like economic development and procurement are in progress as we speak. That still leaves important issues like waste management, fire and roads that will require revised solutions. More complex issues like the building, official planning and shoreline preservation must also be addressed.
We know these challenges are there; they can be significantly improved; and in my mind carry a higher priority at this moment. (Lisa Gervais).