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Nov. 13, 2019 | Wednesday
Local News
NOTL leaders relieved province won't force amalgamation
Regional Coun. Gary Zalepa says he’s happy the province will not force amalgamation on Niagara. (Dariya Baiguzhiyeva/Niagara Now)

Kevin MacLean / Dariya Baiguzhiyeva

The Lake Report

Area politicians are relieved that the province listened to the arguments they made and will not force amalgamation on Niagara Region or any of the regional municipalities across the province.

Lord Mayor Betty Disero said she is thankful Premier Doug Ford and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark understand the importance of municipal governments.

“Local governments are closest to the public and we affect the public on a day-to-day basis,” she said in an interview. “And they get that and I’m happy about that.”

Disero said she doesn’t know whether the town’s participation in the 2019 Association of Municipalities Ontario conference in August played a role in the province’s decision. Small towns and cities made it clear they had concerns about the proposed changes.

Looking ahead, the lord mayor said she’s happy to have a discussion with the region about the work the town and the region do, but she doesn’t know whether other Niagara-area municipalities will agree to it.

“It may or may not happen, but the province has given some resources to allow that discussion to take place,” she said.

The surprise announcement that forced amalgamations will not happen came last Friday morning at the fall policy forum of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario in London, Ont.

Clark revealed the extensive review that began last winter has determined it would be a mistake to dismantle the regional government model that was first introduced in the 1970s.

“Municipalities are the level of government closest to the people, but every community is different – one size doesn’t fit all,” Clark said in a news release.

“After careful consideration of the feedback we heard through the course of the review, our government stands firm in its commitment to partnering with municipalities without pursuing a top-down approach. We will provide municipalities with the resources to support local decision-making,” he said.

NOTL regional councillor Gary Zalepa echoed Disero’s comments, saying he’s happy Niagara will not see a forced amalgamation but he’s excited as he thinks it’s now “a good opportunity” for local and regional governments to have a discussion on how to make a better change in service delivery.

“Local people make better decisions,” Zalepa said. “At the end of the day, Niagara Region is made up of so many wonderful unique little communities. It’d be a shame to lose those identities.”

“This is a time now to see how we can make government better. All should be on the table: size of councils and how services are delivered.”

The Ford government is dangling $143 million in incentives for the province’s 144 municipalities to do just that: lower costs, improve services and find efficiencies.

After the governance review of Ontario’s eight regional governments and Simcoe County was launched, most local politicians, observers and administrators thought that massive forced amalgamations were inevitable.

While many pushed back hard against the idea and suggested alternatives, it was almost universally acknowledged that changes were coming.

During the review, more than 8,500 submissions with ideas on how to improve local governments were sent to the province.

With the decision to not blow up the existing regional model, there will be no One Niagara nor a Four-City model nor any other major change. NOTL councillors previously expressed their opposition to the proposed Four-City Niagara report.

Zalepa has some ideas for changes to how regional government works and noted the region can be more successful at attracting investment and businesses to Niagara.

Planning services is another area where Zalepa said he’d like to see a change to allow for a streamlined application process so investors and developers in Niagara would go through one process instead of having multiple applications.

“I’m not talking about streamlining zoning or rules, I mean just the application process,” he said. “So that when a developer applies somewhere in Niagara, it’s a condensed process.”

There’s also an opportunity to “help each other” with long-term capital asset management plans, Zalepa said, noting it could be a shared service concept where the region could “lend its expertise” to some municipalities to help strengthen their asset management plans.

“This has to be a decision we all make together. This is a good opportunity for Niagara to demonstrate to the province Niagara can work together but we have to build consensus, we have to find our common ground and then be respectful allowing municipalities to make the decision themselves.”

MPP Wayne Gates said he was against forced amalgamation since the beginning and he was glad to see the government has “changed horses.”

“I think my riding is so unique, to me it made absolutely no sense to bundle it into a major city,” Gates said.

“The key to good governance in Niagara-on-the-Lake is to recognize that each community has its uniqueness. You shouldn’t be forcing a common solution ‘one size fits all’ because it just doesn’t … Small towns have unique voices and they deserve to be heard.”

Gates promised to continue working with elected municipal and regional councillors on making sure whatever they do is in the best interests of community residents.

“In Niagara-on-the-Lake, Queenston, Virgil, St. Davids, we have to protect their heritage. We have to make sure we protect their agricultural lands, protect the Greenbelt and if there’s going to be development, it has to be with a consultation with the town, its residents and with the elected officials.”

Regional chair Jim Bradley applauded the minister’s decision and said leaving the “decision-making power” in the hands of locally elected councils allows each municipality to decide what’s best for its residents.

“Now that this decision has been made, and the uncertainties of a potentially forced amalgamation are behind us, regional council can continue to focus on what is most important to our residents: delivering the programs and services our citizens, visitors and businesses rely on daily,” Bradley said in a statement.

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