A tale of one city, a rural district and rising taxes

‘Amalgamation not an option, because it doesn’t save’

While Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows struggle to curb costs, rein in never-ending tax increases, and soothe restive voters, one possible solution is a long way from getting on the table.

Merging both municipalities in an attempt to trim expenses isn’t an option for either mayor.

“It’s a passionate, emotional discussion,” said Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin.

It’s an interesting one, as well, he says – though not one he thinks about much.

Re-joining the two municipalities (Pitt Meadows separated from Maple Ridge in 1892) arises occasionally on the periphery of municipal debate.

Both Daykin and Pitt Meadows Mayor Deb Walters, though, see no public support.

“I think, too, you lose a lot of connection with your citizens because now you’re bigger. I hope I don’t see it happening in my lifetime,” Walters said.

And bigger isn’t always better, or cheaper.

When Toronto merged into one big city in 1998, “I don’t think it saved them money. It cost them money,” Daykin said.

A 2000 study of the amalgamation of Matsqui and Abbotsford by the Intergovernmental Committee on Urban and Regional Research led to the same conclusion.

It found spending by the newly merged City of Abbotsford jumped by a million dollars, three years after the 1995 amalgamation.

(That worked out to a three-per-cent increase, during which the population grew seven per cent.)

Daykin noted that Pitt Meadows has a paid-on-call fire department, while Maple Ridge’s is a blend of full-time and part-time firefighters.

Pitt Meadows has unified garbage collection. “So what does that look like,” combining services, he asked.

A larger city  would also mean expanding council from seven to nine members.

“To assume you could eliminate 34 staff positions in Pitt Meadows, I don’t think is realistic.”

Amalgamation just doesn’t work, said Pitt Meadows Coun. Janice Elkerton.

“It doesn’t save costs, it actually increases it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at cutting costs.”

Elkerton said as a city grows, so does its bureaucracy, which could cancel out any economies of scale.

People still like the small-town feel of Pitt Meadows, population 17,800. Maple Ridge’s population is about 78,000.

Elkerton said savings can be achieved by making small cuts here and there, such as reducing the number of studies and consultants hired by the city.

“Everything adds up.”

Take care of the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves, instead of continually going back to the public trough for studies that are not used.

“I don’t think amalgamation is the answer. It is looking at what we’re spending and getting back to our core services.”

But she did say that the joint-use agreement for recreation services between Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows does save money.

“I don’t see it in my time but who knows what the future brings.”

A hypothetical number crunch though does have tempting results.

If amalgamation was achieved and Pitt Meadows public works department simply joined Maple Ridge’s, and the fire departments merged, the only separate costs would be that to run Pitt Meadows city hall. In 2013, that was $4.5 million.

But if administration was able to be handled out of Maple Ridge municipal hall, Pitt Meadows would save $4.5 million.

That would mean a 29-per-cent decrease in Pitt Meadows current property taxes, if they were kept separate from Maple Ridge’s.

Staff point out though that city hall administration generates money through fees and permits, although presumably that money could be collected by at Maple Ridge municipal hall.

By comparison, Maple Ridge’s general government and planning departments costs for this year sit at $16 million – and are expected to rise to $19 million within three years.

Pitt Meadows tax crusader Tom Murray also sees amalgamation as a drastic measure.

“Amalgamation, I don’t really want to see that happen. That’s just too much.

“There are many ways to cut costs and I don’t think amalgamation is the way to do it.”

“They want to build empires in this city – and Maple Ridge too.”

Walter said Pitt Meadows has a lean administration where senior managers run two departments.

“For someone to say government spending in Pitt Meadows is excessive, I would have to argue that.”

She pointed out Pitt Meadows’s director of finance is also facilities director, while the human resources director is in charge of communications, and the director of operations runs development services.

Walters is from the Toronto area and says people are still complaining about the latest amalgamation in 1998.

When two cities merge, there is still the same area to serve so the staff and councils just become larger.

“I think too, you lose a lot of connection with your citizens because now you’re bigger. I hope I don’t see it happening in my lifetime.”

Walters agrees that Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge share its parks and leisure services, which saves money, but it also tries to ensure its own independence. That joint services agreement with Maple Ridge is up for review next year.

Diking is also a priority for Pitt Meadows and was a major impetus that led to its separation from Maple Ridge in 1892. Pitt Meadows became a municipality in 1913 and a city in 2007.

“It definitely is a high priority for us. We’re surrounded by dikes and we have to make sure they’re maintained, always or we lose Pitt Meadows, basically.

“We’re pretty proud of our independence and so is Maple Ridge is as well and when we work together we work well together.

“I honestly just don’t think there’s an appetite for it at this time.”

 

 

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