Victoria's amalgamation frustration: why there are still 13 municipalities in BC's capital

The absurdities of the Capital Regional District's municipal patchwork are real—but so are the arguments for decentralized power

By Daren Zomerman
January 19, 2021

Victoria's amalgamation frustration: why there are still 13 municipalities in BC's capital

The absurdities of the Capital Regional District's municipal patchwork are real—but so are the arguments for decentralized power

By Daren Zomerman
Jan 19, 2021
Illustration by Tristan Pratt / Capital Daily
Illustration by Tristan Pratt / Capital Daily

Victoria's amalgamation frustration: why there are still 13 municipalities in BC's capital

The absurdities of the Capital Regional District's municipal patchwork are real—but so are the arguments for decentralized power

By Daren Zomerman
January 19, 2021
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Victoria's amalgamation frustration: why there are still 13 municipalities in BC's capital
Illustration by Tristan Pratt / Capital Daily

Victoria’s beloved turd finally got its wish. Almost two decades ago, James Skwarok and the People Opposed to Outfall Pollution, a.k.a. POOP, built a giant feces-themed costume from a $150 pile of Value Village scraps and began roaming the beaches and streets in downtown Victoria. 

Skwarok’s costume was part of a long-running public pressure campaign that finally started to gain steam through the early 2000s. But the resulting movement was far from smooth, as the capital region’s proliferation of municipalities struggled to work together to build a necessary $775 million wastewater treatment facility. 

The BC provincial government ordered the Capital Regional District (CRD) in 2006 to work with the communities to develop a wastewater treatment plan by 2020. Getting there was a long process of bickering councils, exasperated citizens, and revisions on revisions of plans.

As of Dec. 15, 2020, just two weeks before the provincial government had threatened to pull their half-billion dollar contribution, the ostensibly environment-loving CRD finally stopped releasing raw sewage into the ocean. 

The capital region is made up of 13 municipal governments looking after just 380,000 residents. While many capital cities across Canada have amalgamated the former colonies that made them up, Victoria is one of only three provincial capital cities with a population less than 100,000. Some people are fed up with a lack of municipal co-ordination, NIMBYism, and paying for duplicated administrations within the capital region. 

In the 2018 municipal elections in Victoria and the neighbouring District of Saanich, residents voted to explore the prospects of amalgamation through a citizens’ assembly. Saanich and Victoria councils pushed the process along in early 2020, but the process has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Starting in 2008, it took the CRD six years to flesh out an appropriate plan for the facility on McLoughlin Point, only for Esquimalt council to veto the plan by denying a zoning bylaw change in front of a packed council chamber. 

“We have faced Goliath before. We are doing it again,” Mayor Barb Desjardins announced in 2014 as council unanimously rejected the decision, eliciting a standing ovation from the crowd. Goliath, in this case, was the CRD attempting to use a substantial provincial grant to save the ocean from an embarrassing onslaught of raw sewage, but without buy-in from the community.

With no progress to be had, the provincial government finally stepped in in 2016. That provincially-recommended board came up with a plan that didn’t require a zoning bylaw change by the Esquimalt council, removing their veto. 

Mr. Floatie the turd retired when shovels hit the ground a year later—pooped, as it were, after such a long, nutty process. To be fair, it wasn’t all bad—at least the mussels had received free mental health care. 

The fiasco could have been avoided had decision-making power been centralized in an amalgamated district, and so has joined a long list of  examples South Island residents bring up when they talk about the potential benefits of amalgamation. The CRD’s voluntary co-operation model is designed to bring 13 councils together on projects and solutions of mutual benefit, but it feels toothless. 

At any time, a municipality affected by a plan—even a solution of regional importance—can simply walk away from the table instead of facing it head-on. The wastewater treatment facility is far from the only project the CRD has stumbled over. It has also failed to produce solutions for problems like mutual fire dispatch, inter-municipal transit, and housing the homeless, among others.

Looking outside of the South Island, the Waterloo Region, a co-operative district in Ontario, built an LRT system with a similar population, yet Victoria can’t build bike lanes that enter Oak Bay.  

A failure to communicate

A lack of communication and discord between police forces is one factor that allowed Vancouver serial killer Robert Pickton to go undetected for years.

Former attorney general Wally Oppal told Capital Daily that an attempted murder victim, named Anderson in Oppal’s report to protect her anonymity, told RCMP that Pickton would pick up women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside once per week back in 1997—a full five years before his arrest. 

“The RCMP failed to report that vital information to the Vancouver Police. Had they done that they could have apprehended Pickton five years sooner than they did. In the meantime, more women went missing,” Oppal said. “It's a classic case of regional police, because there was a failure to communicate relevant material from one police force to another.”

A lack of communication has hampered South Island police forces’ effectiveness, too. Victoria Coun. Jeremy Loveday told Capital Daily about what he calls “a gross example of inefficiency” between police departments: Victoria police officers were staking out a home on one side of a street, but when the officers looked across the street, they saw a set of familiar faces. Setting up to catch the same criminals, using the same intelligence, were the Saanich police forces. Neither group of officers knew the others would be there.

Neither Saanich nor Victoria police forces were willing or able to comment on the case. But this is one example where a single police force would be able to respond more safely and efficiently than the separate municipal forces. 

The Pickton case brought about many changes to policing, including building joint operations between police forces. However, Oppal says in important cases like serial killers, there’s still nothing compared to being able to lean over and talk to your colleagues face to face. One of the biggest recommendations in Oppal’s report was that police departments should amalgamate along district lines so miscommunication doesn't cost lives. 

Victoria Police Chief Constable Del Manak believes, even if it means he’s out of a job, a joint police force is the right move for the region. 

“When it comes to public safety, it makes no sense to me that when you’re on one side of the border, one agency will respond to a certain type of call. But as soon as you've crossed that border, that police service will say, ‘Now that you're on this side of the street, we actually don't respond to that,’” Manak said.

Criminals don’t care about such arbitrary and loose borders as the one between Victoria and Saanich—a border many residents would be hard pressed to even identify. Police departments across the South Island do communicate on cases involving prolific offenders, and share task forces for murders and high-stakes crimes. But there’s still a lot of room for improvement, and communities in the CRD still refuse to pull their police forces together.

Victoria and Saanich also have very different priorities, Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes argues. Victoria has greater policing needs when it comes to homeslessness, alcohol-related petty crimes, and protests. Saanich, which has five times the land, requires more traffic enforcement. 

While Victoria has just over three-quarters of the population of Saanich, the city is staffed with almost 100 more officers.

“For policing, the cost per taxpayer in Saanich is less than half of the cost to the taxpayer in Victoria,” Haynes said. “We've seen in recent years that the Victoria Police Department has struggled to convince council to get a fully implemented budget to the point where [the Victoria Police Department] had to appeal to the province.”  

Haynes said that argument would become front-and-centre if amalgamation went ahead.

“In an amalgamated city, which group would win out? Where would the policing be?” he asks. “The central argument is that we could get cheaper police, that we could share the police cost. But would Saanich still get the quality of policing that it is used to and it expects? That's a significant question.” 

To avoid increasing the budget, Victoria police had to remove school liaison officers to meet front-line staffing requirements, while Saanich council continues to fully fund their police units. 

Since 2018, Victoria city council has authored multiple requests for the BC solicitor general to step in and mandate a regional police force. However, the minister has responded both times that policing is a municipal matter for communities with a population larger than 5,000. 

These same debates have been happening in the Lower Mainland region since the ’90s, Oppal explained. 

“Vancouver has been in favour of it all along. Every time they recommend it, the other police forces think they're going to be dominated by Vancouver, so even in the ’90s when Vancouver appeared before us and recommended an amalgamation, that created a fear amongst smaller police forces,” the former BC attorney general explained. 

Oppal said “there's no precedent at all,” however, for an amalgamated police force to reduce the number of officers where they’re needed. “It's an ill-founded political fear.”

Manak said there are about 473 officers working in the region. Any time there’s an emergency requiring a disproportionate number of officers in one district, there are others who shift over and cover for their colleagues. But having a regional police force would give officers greater flexibility, so administrators wouldn’t need to devote precious time to co-ordinating officers from one jurisdiction into another. 

The police chief said officers in a single, unified region would have more opportunities to specialize and work in the sections they’re passionate about without having to get rehired by another force. And at the same time, the combined budgets would allow police to further modernize their forces, instead of spending money on duplicate administrations and chiefs.

“I can tell you right now, we don't need four police chiefs in this region. Now, am I saying that I could be vying for taking myself out of a job? Yeah, absolutely. It takes leadership,” Manak said. “We can provide community policing to each municipality, as it is today, but have the economy of scale and the efficiency of having a high-functioning police department.”

Victoria Fire Chief Paul Bruce echoes Manak’s concerns. Last fall, he issued a 120-day notice to the regional municipalities that they were going to end a 40-year mutual aid agreement. Bruce said because of the changing nature of firefighting with larger communities, and public health regulations, surrounding communities were unfairly relying on Victoria and Saanich without compensation. 

Victoria alone received nearly 7,000 calls for service in 2020—up from 1,200 back when the agreements were initially drawn.

The chief explained that WorkSafeBC guidelines stipulate that two trucks are needed every time a crew has to break into a building to fight a fire. Yet, Esquimalt and Oak Bay only have one engine each, requiring backup from Saanich and Victoria each time. And to add expenses on top, WorkSafeBC requires all crews that fight fires together to train together—an expense often placed on the backs of the bigger city crews.

“Back in 2014, I started trying to encourage my colleagues to look at this with fresh eyes and consider the costs involved, so taxpayers in one municipality weren't funding the fire service in another municipality with these imaginary boundaries that we have,” he explained.

While the mutual aid talks are quickly coming to a close, there are other issues in having staggered dispatch throughout the region—a problem the CRD failed to fix in 2018.

The capital region uses three different dispatch centres located in Saanich, Surrey, and Langford. The CRD board has tried to bring dispatch units together in the Langford Centre, but it wasn’t the cheapest solution, leading some municipalities to go with other options. 

Chief Bruce noted that human error coming from the multiple centres—some without a local understanding of the capital region—can sometimes tie up the lines by up to a minute. At the same time, all of these centres are due for CRTC-mandated upgrades to accept next-generation calls, including photos, videos, and other data-transmitted resources. 

The chief said these upgrades will cost more than $1 million for each centre, a cost that could’ve been shared at a single facility. 

No safe haven 

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the CRD to act quickly in housing the 1,523 homeless residents. One possible solution that ultimately failed was the Oak Bay Lodge. Media reports show opposition towards the project coming from Oak Bay residents, including one letter to the Times Colonist by an Oak Bay resident claiming the project would expose nearby children to crime and drug use. 

Coun. Loveday said the Capital Region Board leaving the Oak Bay Lodge empty was a mistake that’s left people needing shelter out in the rain.

“The city of Victoria is facing an acute homelessness crisis, with people sheltering in parks. Meanwhile, we have a vacant building in Oak Bay that is publicly owned by the region that could be immediately used to house people who are sleeping outside in the rain. But instead, up to now, the region has decided that it's better that that building sit vacant,” he said. 

“Our region is facing many very tough issues right now. And a lot of them would be better served if the region worked together.”

Mayor Fred Haynes paints a different picture. The mayor noted that even if there is opposition from Oak Bay council, they only have a single vote on the CRD board, and that it failed because other members believed this wasn’t the right solution. The real reason the project failed comes down to three main factors, according to Haynes.

For one, the lodge, which was slated to undergo demolition, would have been a costly and temporary option . Second, it wasn’t clear if any organization would be able to take care of the people there. And third, the Oak Bay council would have had to rezone the building—a process that could ultimately stall the project for at least another month and potentially give them a chance to veto. 

The Saanich mayor said this wasn’t about NIMBYism, but a case where the board needed to look into other facilities. And the biggest hurdle to providing shelter, Haynes argues, has more to do with a lack of government-owned land than a will to build.

“When people think every city has a lot of land, we're not sure that that's the best approach. We think BC Housing and the province can go out and buy land. They're the ones with the big pockets,” Haynes said. “If we stand by and allow senior levels of government to continually download solutions to mental health, homelessness, and housing, and transportation, they all land on the backs of our taxpayers. And our taxpayer is already in as much as we think they really can.”

Lately there has been more funding available than ever before to house the homeless. The BC government is attempting to house all of the homeless campers in Victoria parks by the end of March, and is actively searching to purchase a third hotel and put up temporary shipping-container homes, and potentially turn the Save-On-Foods Arena back into an emergency shelter. 

A tax of two cities

Every argument for municipal amalgamation eventually boils down to money. And the first argument tends to be about whose taxes will increase or decrease. 

On the whole, tax rates in Victoria and Saanich are very similar. Victoria residents pay four cents more per $1,000 valuation than Saanich residents, but Victoria homes are on the whole less valuable. The average difference in taxes is only $22.80 in Victoria’s favour. If taxes don’t increase to cover the substantial costs of amalgamating, neither side will see a noticeable difference. 

But the picture goes deeper than that. In Saanich, 23% of taxes come from businesses, and 77% comes from residential, while Victoria sits closer to a 49:51 ratio between business and residential taxes. 

Infographic by Snejana Vorona / Capital Daily

In the middle of a pandemic that’s seeing local shops close their doors around the country, there is fear that more taxes may be downloaded onto residents—but to insulate municipalities from default, every Canadian province allows them to repossess homes and businesses that haven’t paid their taxes for three years straight, so the municipalities aren’t exposed to as much risk as people might expect. 

The South Island also has some of the highest council costs of any major centre in Canada. If you divide taxes by population, Victoria and Saanich residents each pay $5.28 and $4.30, respectively, for the council base salaries. By comparison, Vancouver citizens pay just $1.56.

Saanich absorbing Victoria looks like the deal of a lifetime, on paper. The district raises $346 million annually to service 103 square kilometres. Adding Victoria would give a single council access to an additional $264.9 million in tax revenue to service just 19.5 sq. km. An amalgamated Victoria-Saanich would have a much healthier tax ratio of 35% business, and 65% residential, a total population over 200,000, and a number of tourist attractions people travel the world to see. 

Victoria is one of the main employment centres in the entire CRD. Thousands of people commute every day for work and pleasure. In parking alone, Victoria is able to raise approximately $19 million per year. Whether or not Saanich residents like it, they’re effectively contributing to Victoria’s coffers but don’t have a say in Victoria decisions. 

However, studies have found that saving that $3 on council typically results in a larger public administration bill. Retired UVic political science researcher Robert Bish noted in his 2014 paper on the capital region that when you put more work on an elected official’s plate, they require a pay raise and more administrative staff members to maintain their level of community service. And when the workload gets too large, these dedicated staff may be given delegated authority to make decisions on behalf of the elected official. 

Bish said small councils are able to hear local residents’ concerns, where large councils typically see much less citizen participation, and more from well-funded, organized groups, changing the balance of power. 

“One of the most frightening things that can happen for any citizen is to lose connection with its local government because then the changes that you need on a day-to-day basis become vaguely handled and it's hard for you to make change,” said Larry Beasely, a former director of planning in Vancouver, who has worked in major cities in Russia, Holland, the United States, and Brazil.

Larger councils also see much higher election costs with more pandering to businesses, developers, and organizations running third-party advertising campaigns. 

Councils serving larger populations are also less representative of the general population. It’s rare for any council to have an elected official young enough to tout their job on Tinder, but Saanich has possibly made a Canadian first by electing two councillors under 25 in the same election. 

In an amalgamated city, it would be increasingly unlikely that young councillors, and those representing especially progressive ideologies would be able to win an election where they would need broader appeal. 

False economy

In 1998, six communities and a regional district were forced to fuse together (against the popular will of the people) in an effort to save money and harmonize services in Toronto. The move has become a case study in amalgamation—and offers some valuable insights into whether or not merging cities actually saves money.

In Toronto’s case, the transition cost $275 million ($413 million in 2020 dollars), and the city was unable to balance a budget for the next 10 years. While this was an amalgamation of six cities, the amalgamation only really combined 30% of municipal services; the other 70% were already combined at the regional level. 

While researchers did see a reduction of 2,700 redundant staff, the city hired an additional 3,600 staff over the next four years. As well as hiring more, every new staff member had to have their wages harmonized with the highest earners in the region.

There’s a similar pattern in the Vancouver Sun’s Sunshine list. Saanich employs 324 employees earning more than $75,000, while Victoria employs 364. The City of Vancouver, with three times the population of Saanich and Victoria combined, employs 2,738—almost four times as many sunshine list earners.

“This is one of the fallacies that we've learned around the world with this trend [of amalgamations] over the last 15 to 20 years—you don't have as many efficiencies as you think you're going to have,” Beasely said.

“Yes, you only have to pay one mayor and one council, and one city manager. But that one city manager probably has five assistant city managers rather than one because a human being just can't handle that scale by themselves.”

The biggest cost savings outside of council administrations are always assumed to be found in combining fire and police departments. The Toronto region had a similar emergency services makeup, with each of the six municipalities having their own chiefs and administrative staff. But according to Enid Slack, a researcher at The Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, police and fire costs continued to rise year after year after amalgamation.

This is because of a reverse economy of scale, where costs increase as the number of people served increases. Slack found that in Ontario, fire reaches its lowest cost per capita when serving 20,000 people, and policing is cheapest at 50,000. 

Looking at police salaries alone, based on newly released 2021 data, Saanich officers are paid on average $1,405 more than Victoria officers. So the cost of raising Victoria's 249 officers to the Saanich pay rate will add almost $350,000 annually to Victoria's expenses.  If they have contracts with different suppliers, like fire dispatch or waste management, the cancellation clauses alone would wreak havoc on the first year’s budget.

There is provincial funding to offset some of these transition costs, but in BC, it only amounts to $100 per new resident. That means, using 2017 population figures, the new administration would receive just over $21 million.

When community charters fuse, the administration is also responsible for harmonizing the bylaws. There are 1,432 active bylaws in Saanich's books that would need to be combined with Victoria’s, most of which would require the new council’s approval. Slack said this process in Toronto cost thousands of administrative hours and time in council. In the 23 years since amalgamation, Toronto still hasn’t harmonized all of its bylaws.

The only real cost savings in Toronto’s amalgamation came from the reduction of elected officials. But that comes with its own set of concerns. 

“The problems currently facing the new City of Toronto are no less significant now than they were before the city was created; they have not been ameliorated by the creation of the new city,” Slack said in her 2013 study. “At the same time, the amalgamated city has resulted in reduced access and participation by residents in local decision-making.”

There were some benefits to the Toronto amalgamation. Slack noted that before the communities combined, North York had high taxes, but low service levels compared to other municipalities in the region. Amalgamating allowed North York to lower taxes and improve service levels.

Taking everything into consideration, there are no immediate cost savings in amalgamating—and when it comes to providing services, the capital region could be better served by providing services through the regional district.

However, Beasley argues that there is such a thing as a good amalgamation. In its makeup, Sydney, Australia, looks exactly the same as Victoria—a tiny city that encompasses only the downtown core. Sydney has the famous opera house, the world-class Hyde Park, the botanical gardens, and all the fanciest hotels. And it’s bordered by Rose Bay, Surry, Ultimo, and Darling Harbour, each with their own governments and populations less than 20,000. 

Similarly, with the size of Oak Bay and Esquimalt, it may make more sense for the City of Victoria to amalgamate with them instead. Both of these have populations around the 20,000 mark, and don’t have the same expensive, diverse needs of servicing rural areas. 

An amalgamation of cities of this size could be bringing the communities to a modern scale, Beasely said, without commenting directly on Victoria’s case. Whether Victoria and Saanich are more like Australia than Toronto will only be decided by the citizens’ assembly. 

Regional district woes

Regional governments are nothing new. Nearly every major centre has one that handles the big issues, like transportation, economic development, and water supplies, while letting the local governments handle local issues, like zoning, policing, waste collection, and bylaws. 

When the local issues between municipalities arise, the regional government is there to make peace.

“I have argued in other parts of the world that the kind of layered system that we have here is actually one of the most efficient systems I've ever seen and the most effective,” Bealey said.

In BC, these regional districts are set up in a unique way: every regional project progresses on a voluntary, buy-in basis.

That means projects of regional importance fall apart if they don’t have mutually beneficial solutions. The wastewater treatment plant spent six years on the CRD’s table before even getting to Esquimalt council the first time. And when that solution wasn’t good enough for the municipality, the Esquimalt council voted against the region’s best interest. 

Municipal governance is not meant to be a quick process. And the CRD was never designed to speed things up, said Victoria researcher Robert Bish. Regional districts that work to create more mutually beneficial projects tend to work out better than the ones that force projects on communities. 

By defeating the project, Esquimalt ensured that the next iteration came back with sound-dampening and smell-mitigation measures that residents argued should have been there in the first place. A regional district with more authority or a single council could build a project like this faster, but it likely would have been closer to the original project without mitigation measures. 

This is how regional governments work. After the Esquimalt veto, the CRD made an appeal to the provincial government, which has the authority to overrule council, but the province refused. 

“How locally elected municipal officials in the Capital Region achieve consensus on sewage treatment logistics is not something for the provincial government to dictate,” then-environment minister Mary Polak wrote in 2014.

Smaller projects get held up as well: cyclists in the region have seen their fair share of lanes starting in Victoria but ending at the  Saanich or Oak Bay border. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said many of these lanes were built as part of the CRD transportation plans and have been planned with the administrations at the other municipalities. It’s just a waiting game as their priorities catch up.

“Even though the painting on the road doesn't suggest there's co-ordination in terms of longer term planning, there certainly is,” Helps said. 

Slow processes are frustrating. But often these slower processes get results that work the best for everyone involved. 

“The changes likely to get the best results are incremental,” Bish said. “That is one of the successes of regional districts—we are over 50 years in and they are still evolving.”

Since his election in 2018, Haynes has never before outwardly admitted that he is against the amalgamation of his city and Victoria, withholding his displeasure so as not to taint the citizen’s assembly process. But as it stands today, he said he does not believe amalgamation is in the best interest of Saanich residents.

“When you look at the pros and cons of amalgamation, you say ‘what are you going to gain, and what are you going to lose?’ And I would say now, as the mayor of Saanich, two years in and having the responsibility to think more deeply about these things, I am not convinced that amalgamation would be to either the advantage of Saanich residents, or the region as a whole.”

This article was updated on Jan 25, 2021 at 10:00 am to reflect newly released police salaries.

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