All for amalgamation

in Featured/Journalism by

St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe is adamant that regional municipal amalgamation will happen — it’s just a matter of when.

The mayors of Mount Pearl and Paradise, however, aren’t convinced and haven’t budged on the issue.

“Yes, it is inevitable and they know it,” O’Keefe said. “And it’s logical and they know it in the long run, and it makes sense.”

“It is inevitable and they know it,”—Dennis O’Keefe

O’Keefe said he wants the municipalities to start a joint committee to analyze the issue. He hasn’t asked them yet, but he knows what the answer will be.

“The answer would be ‘no, we’re not even going to contemplate it,’” he said.

As TheIndependent.ca recently reported, Mount Pearl and Paradise aren’t the only ones wary of joining forces. Toronto economist Adam Found, who is completing a PhD on the topic, said larger municipal mergers in this country often do not result in savings or efficiency.

O’Keefe said he assumes an updated report into municipal amalgamation — likely to be released later this month — will confirm much of what he already believes. That is, that the case for coming together is a strong one.

“Are there going to be problems? In the beginning, yes… Nothing is perfect, but you work through the problems and at the end of the day you come out being better for it.”

O’Keefe said there are gains to be made in regional, residential and industrial planning and development; in roads and recreation. Plus, he said, the cities and towns would be better not competing against each other to get companies to set up shop.

“All of that would be better realized and better served through having one city rather than three areas doing their own planning and in competition with each other,” he said.

A taxing issue

Detractors of amalgamation have argued that property taxes will increase for Mount Pearl and Paradise because St. John’s has a higher rate. O’Keefe maintains that amalgamation would accomplish “a more equitable level of service for an equal level of taxation.”

“Some of the residential property taxes might go up, and some might come down. But there would be a levelling.”

O’Keefe reiterated a common argument for amalgamation — that St. John’s taxpayers pay for the asphalt that allows residents of neighbouring municipalities to get to their jobs, hospitals, shopping and entertainment in St. John’s.

“The residents of St. John’s, also in their taxation, carry the burden of regional services and carry the burden of infrastructure services that are used by people in the region,” he said.

Levelling up

According to Found, many amalgamations mean a “levelling up” of services, where areas with fewer services get bumped up to match that of the highest level municipality prior to the merger.

“All of that would be better realized and better served through having one city rather than three areas doing their own planning and in competition with each other.” —Dennis O’Keefe

The point has been used as a case against amalgamation because of the costs associated it. O’Keefe, however, sees levelling up as a positive thing for residents, pointing out the millions of dollars that went into the Goulds, which was once separate from the city. The cost is something to be worked out over time, he said.

And, he added, disparities in services among different areas can be reflected in the tax structure.

“We give a mill rate discount to people who have their own well and septic, so that their tax is not as high as mine, because I’m on the municipal infrastructure system.”

Retaining identities

Economist Adam Found said one of the biggest barriers to amalgamation has little to do with economics. People perceive a loss of community will occur when they get absorbed into the main city. O’Keefe said distinct communities — some of which were once on their own — continue to exist in St. John’s.

“I refer to the city as a community of communities. So we have Kilbride, we have the Goulds, we have the West End, we have Rabbittown, we have Pleasantville, we have Shea Heights. None of them have ever lost their identity.”