The Township of South Dundas (now Municipality of) came into existence 25 years ago this month. Like many municipalities in Ontario, the tumult of the Mike Harris-led late-1990s saw hundreds of municipalities combine into larger entities through amalgamation. Some jumped into the process before being forced by the provincial government: others were pushed together. South Dundas’ predecessor communities (Matilda Township, Village of Iroquois, Village of Morrisburg, and Williamsburg Township) opted for the former.
Amalgamation was billed as a way to streamline and modernize municipal government – which had been largely unchanged in composition since 1850. The Harris mantra of “do more with less” was a driver in this, just as the publicly-funded education system was up-ended the previous year and reorganized into five different school systems.
At the same time as amalgamation, the province downloaded provincial services on to municipalities. The bulk of Ontario’s highway network was passed on to upper-tier municipalities like SDG Counties, as was social housing, land ambulance, and provincial offences court – just to name a few. This necessitated agreements between different municipalities (Cornwall and SDG locally) to share and pay for those services. For rural municipalities, it was a double-hit with changes to the Farm Tax Class that cut 75 of the tax revenue from agricultural properties. Do more with less indeed.
If the concept of amalgamation was intended only to cut costs and do more with less – and lower taxes – it has been an abject failure. That failure lands at the feet of successive provincial governments since 1998. Instead of lowering costs and taxes, the Ontario government balanced its books on the backs of the municipalities – a financial shell-game still played to this day. Additionally, constant meddling by the province has added responsibilities and costs to all 444 “modern” municipalities.
But the argument can also be made that despite the original plans and provincial failures, amalgamation has in fact been successful. The amalgamation process made local government more relevant to its citizens. Local responsibility means local direction and control. Municipalities do better reflect the community make up and goals than a quarter-century ago.
Four days into its legal existence, South Dundas, its new council, and amalgamated staff, faced a once-in-century challenge, the 1998 Ice Storm – a “trial by ice” rather than fire. Since then, South Dundas has grown as a community. There are still divides, where some people continue to consider the individual communities within South Dundas greater than the whole. That attitude however is diminishing as amalgamation moves further and further away in the rear-view mirror. The realization that a community that rows in the same direction goes much further, yields positive change for everyone.
Amalgamation was the right concept, mostly at the right time, but poorly executed by a provincial government which had the wrong intent. A quarter-century later, local government remains a work-in-progress, moving in the right direction.