Municipal Election 2014

Bratina Fumbles De-Amalgamation Again

The city has to move on and as long as Bratina insists on opening old wounds, finding closure will be difficult.

By Zachary Spicer
Published January 09, 2014

Bob Bratina entered Hamilton's 2010 municipal election less than two months before Election Day and didn't have much time to make up ground on his two main opponents, but he found the right wedge issue: de-amalgamation.

Those in the outlying suburbs resented the perceived loss of their communities through amalgamation. They argued that their property taxes went up, while their service levels went down.

Since amalgamation, however, this resentment has slowly subsided. Politically, Hamiltonians began to focus on other issues, but mention amalgamation on the corner of King and Sydenham in downtown Dundas and you may get an earful. Simply put, anger over amalgamation had gone from a raging fire to a smolder over the course of a decade.

Re-Igniting the Fire

Bratina knew that his best hope in making up ground in the 2010 election was to re-ignite this fire. During his campaign launch, Bratina told the assembled crowd that the city's current incarnation was "not working" and that "everyone agrees with that".

De-amalgamation, Bratina argued, was a "possibility" as he promised that he was "going to confront it". He even went so far as to say that de-amalgamation was "absolutely" better than the current system.

Bratina's pledge was vague and bold, but ultimately propelled him to victory. Despite his late start and running against two well-known opponents, Bratina won. He carried six of the seven suburban wards, some by wide margins. Eisenberger even conceded that Bratina's de-amalgamation musings was a major cause of his defeat.

The province quickly tossed cold water on Bratina's pledge, however. Soon after the election, Richard Stromberg, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing stated, "de-amalgamation would require legislative change...it's not permitted under the law". He continued: "what I'd say is it's not a priority for the government".

At this point, other issues - namely the stadium funding fiasco - dominated the city's political agenda. De-amalgamation slipped to the background until yesterday, when Bratina announced that he was holding a "presentation on amalgamation".

With few details, the city's media assembled in the MacNab room of the Sheraton Hotel, awaiting Bratina's next move. You can watch Joey Coleman's video recording of the event:

Solid Research

Bratina introduced Tim Cobban, an assistant professor from the University of Western Ontario, who had come to Hamilton to present his research on amalgamation.

(Full disclosure: Tim Cobban was a professor of mine while I completed my PhD at The University of Western Ontario. He also served as an examiner at my dissertation defense in June 2013.)

Cobban's research asks whether the Common Sense Revolution reduced the size of local government. He examines all amalgamated municipalities across the province. Hamilton is one of the cities included, but it is not the focus of the study.

Cobban's research is solid. From an academic perspective it is incredibly helpful. He has established that the provincial government's consolidation agenda did not result in cost savings or a reduction in the size of local government, as was initially billed.

The question, however, is why Bratina sought it out and why he believed that Cobban's work fulfilled his promise to examine de-amalgamation. The crowd focused on these issues and Hamilton's journalists - primarily Andrew Dreschel and Joey Coleman - hammered away at Bratina's decision. Why are we here? Why now? What does this prove? What does the city do with this?

All good questions, which Bratina fumbled while furiously trying to stick-handle a chorus of criticism from the crowd. He finally conceded that he intends to take Cobban's work to the province in the hopes that it will compel the government to review the city's governance structure.

No Provincial Interest

Such a plan is not only fraught with difficulty; it's also incredibly naïve, primarily because it is not clear why Cobban's work will force such a decision.

As I mentioned, Cobban's research is insightful and joins a chorus of other authors, such as Andrew Sancton from The University of Western Ontario, Enid Slack and Richard Bird from the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance and Jean-Phillipe Meloche and François Vaillancourt of the Université de Montréal, in arguing that amalgamation has failed to produce promised cost savings.

The province of Ontario is aware of this work. They also have a small army of their own public policy experts and economists at Queen's Park who have examined and re-examined the fiscal and political impact of amalgamation. They have seen the research. They remained uncompelled to take action.

This, of course, was not the purpose of Cobban's research. He is not advocating for any particular policy change. He set out to disprove the notion that the Common Sense Revolution created smaller local government in the province. In this task, he succeeded.

By using Cobban's work to pester the province, Bratina is stretching its intention and meaning. The province does not want to seriously consider de-amalgamation, which is understandable. Mike Harris' restructuring program went well beyond Hamilton. Other large cities, such as Toronto, Ottawa and Sudbury, were also consolidated.

In total, the province went from over 800 municipalities prior to Mike Harris' term in office to 444 when he left. Needless to say, these changes were massive. Reversing this would not only be costly and complicated, but also politically painful.

Middle Ground

At yesterday's announcement, Bratina's tone towards de-amalgamation also changed. No longer was de-amalgamation "absolutely" better than the status quo. Instead he correctly pointed out that solutions to the city's governance quagmire lay on a spectrum between the status quo and de-amalgamation. This middle ground is some degree of fiscal and political decentralization.

This was the approach taken in Montréal, where borough governments deliver a wide range of local services. It's also an approach already in play in some parts of Hamilton, with the city's experiments with community budgeting.

The solution to Bratina's problems, then, may be right in front of his nose: empower the city's neighbourhoods and allow for greater community decision-making. Such changes would also not require provincial legislative change.

The voters of suburban communities such as Dundas, Ancaster and Flamborough didn't cast their ballots for Bratina in 2010 because they believed that de-amalgamation would be a reality by the end of his term. They voted for him because he acknowledged the current model had problems and showed some interest in doing something about it.

Mentioning "de-amalgamation" was crass politics, but the voters of these communities simply wanted to examine alternative governance models. Bratina still has a chance to do this, but instead he's playing footsies with the prospects of de-amalgamation again.

Bratina's initial pledge to examine de-amalgamation was deliberately misleading, as is his eventual return to the topic. He knows that de-amalgamation is incredibly unlikely, but he insisted on rousing the subject in order to entice suburban votes in 2010.

Now he's doing it again and it's irresponsible. The city has to move on and as long as Bratina insists on opening old wounds, finding closure will be difficult.

The only thing we can take from yesterday's announcement is that when it comes to de-amalgamation, Bratina is making it up as he goes along. The problem is that he is now taking the whole city with him on a very ill-defined journey as he scrambles to meet his poorly conceived 2010 election promise.

Zachary Spicer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Brock University. He lives in Hamilton and golfs regularly (but is still pretty bad at it). You can follow him on twitter @ZacSpicer.

42 Comments

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By Marty (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 09:39:09

What part of the equation he leaves out is the fact, yes these amalgamated communities saw an increase of their population, but look what they have done to these communities in terms of growth infrastructure. Not to mention the Conservation lands that were protected by the communities, once they amalagamated, the terms changed and the building bylaws that pertained to the City now included the same rules for building in these communities. White wash instead of customizing these building bylaws too reflect the needs, and identity of these unique annexed communities.

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By JustinJones (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2014 at 10:13:28

So let me get this straight - Bratina will be taking this research to the province without having ever consulted his colleagues on council, and ask them to provide comment on amalgamation.

When council unanimously approves a Rapid Ready Report identifying the City's desire for LRT, he proceeds to obfuscate, spread misinformation and ignore staff recommendations. This guy has shown a consistent lack of interest in working together with his colleagues on council, with other mayors in the region and has become as marginal a voice as can be found at the municipal level (barring everyone's favorite crackhead). It's time for him to go.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 10:17:06 in reply to Comment 96556

If anything is not amalgamated it is mayor Bratina's logic."This guy is all over the place often contradicting himself without even knowing it. We need more downtown parking, it's way too cheap" Huh?

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2014 at 10:59:26 in reply to Comment 96558

In his defense, his example was parking meters. If he's thinking parking meters, then I agree - there aren't enough and they're too cheap (at least when they're free on weekends).

But the question was about private lots, which have nothing to do with meters - and Hamilton's downtown private lots are too plentiful and too expensive (at least for the hourly rate, I don't care about the daily rate).

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 10:14:11

Samantha Craggs of CBC tweered, "Cobban says more rural municipalities, eg Flamborough, probably fared better than they think"

I think this would surprise a lot of people,no?

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 11:31:37 in reply to Comment 96557

It's unfortunate that Flamborough is probably least likely to believe that statement.

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By missy2013 (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2014 at 11:10:27 in reply to Comment 96557

In the village of Waterdown (Flamborough), residents and the surrounding area locals revolted when Hamilton decided to put in tax-grab parking meters on Main Street opposite the frequently visited Post Office. Not only was there late night vandalism, a grassroots petition was launched within a week that secured hundreds of signatures in just a few days. The loud public outcry soon had the meters removed and, thus far, that's the end of the matter ... Likewise, ask Ancaster if they 'like' amalgamation. Most are paying higher taxes to cover public services for downtown Hamilton. The distance is great enough that they don't and won't care about LRT or 'core issues'. That's the 'reality' of amalgamation. Like it or not.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 19:10:43 in reply to Comment 96564

Ancaster and the other suburban areas are paying more taxes NOT to cover services downtown, but to slowly bring them up to an even taxation level with old Hamilton. Old homes in central Hamilton used to pay 50% more property taxes than Ancaster or Waterdown. Yes, the poor inner city has been subsidizing cul-de-sacs, freeways and never-ending roads to more big box stores since the horrible regional government structure in the 1970s. Thankfully that subsidy is now down to around 15-20% as the outer areas slowly are phased-in to the same tax rates as the old city. I don't know the exact timelines, but in the next few years, urbanized areas in the entire city will pay the same tax rate. You won't get facts like this from the Free Flamborough honks. Free Flamborough should really be called 'Free-Ride Flamborough'.
If a TRUE and clear de-amalgamation were to ever take place, the outer suburbs would start to go bankrupt so fast it would make your head spin.

People who like to muddle the facts always say "lets go back to the Regional Government system" when they talk about de-amalgamation. No no no. A true de-amalgamation would be horrendous for the suburbs. Of course they all want the old regional system where inner city taxpayers are paying 50% more for the identical services as urban Ancaster or Stoney Creek. Who wouldn't want a free ride?

The mayor should (but won't) come out and clearly lay out the numbers for a true de-amalgamation.
There's a reason you haven't heard a peep about this issue from any of the suburban councillors the past 4 years - they know the numbers.

EDIT: I remember a great moment at an election campaign debate before Bob Wade won the mayors seat. He was asked by someone if he would refute the stat that old, urban Hamilton tax dollars paid 80-85% of the costs to develop the Meadowlands area. He said that stat was accurate based on his knowledge. That was over a decade ago....surely someone has the ability to hold a press conference once and for all and share the actual stats and facts with the Hamilton public?? Or we can just keep allowing folks to play political games for their own benefit.

Comment edited by jason on 2014-01-09 19:18:06

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By porcupine (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 15:11:35 in reply to Comment 96606

This may all be true for the suburbs, but actual rural Flamborough is getting the shaft. I am on a 6 acre small agricultural lot -- which I steward ecologically -- run my own sewer and water systems and the only services I get (badly) from the city are garbage pickup and road maintenance (tho that may actually be a provincial domain in my case, not sure.) Yet my taxes are over $7000 a year -- for what services?

In return the city has run roughshod over rural areas allowing development on green-spaces to go crazy. The expansion in Waterdown is just mental, and the city was silent (if not supportive) on the proposed new highway(s) the MTO was trying to bulldoze through rural Flamborough and the escarpment.

I like Hamilton, and don't mind paying taxes into it. I prefer its character over Burlington by far. But it's doing a piss poor job of managing its rural areas. I fear, and the evidence is there, that it sees them only as future tax revenue opportunities in the form of a free-for-all for McMansion developers.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 23:31:38 in reply to Comment 96646

I agree totally about the rural areas. I wish we would adjust the tax system to differentiate between urban and rural. You folks shouldn't have to be paying into the water/sewer/transit/library funds. I've felt for years that the rural areas are the only ones who got the shaft in how we set up the new city. Folks in the tract housing in Ancaster/Waterdown always try to complain, but they've gotten the biggest free ride in the history of the city. Rural areas, not so.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 17:46:23 in reply to Comment 96646

No one is suggesting that people who live in the rural parts of the suburbs should pay for services they don't receive, but under the current system, people who live in the built up parts of Waterdown, and enjoy the same services as Hamilton residents, pay a lower rate than people in Hamilton. Council took the easy way out and missed the opportunity to determine tax rates based on along urban/rural lines, rather than the increasingly arbitrary borders of the former suburbs.

Under a fair tax structure you would continue to pay a lower rate as a rural resident, but your fellow Flamborians who live in subdivisions indistinguishable from neighbourhoods in the old city, would pay the same rate as their fellow Hamilton suburbanites.

As for all the sprawl that has been built in Flamborough in the years since amalgamation, I think it's a little naive to think that the same development pressures wouldn't have existed in the absence of amalgamation, so while I don't think you can blame Hamilton for creating the sprawl, you can certainly blame us for enabling it by subsidizing it with our tax dollars. This Hamiltonian would be happy to stop anytime.

Comment edited by highwater on 2014-01-10 17:52:38

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By oldcoote (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 13:33:39 in reply to Comment 96606

Jason,

are you saying that the mill rate for the outer suburbs is lower than in the lower city?

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 23:34:42 in reply to Comment 96640

Yes. Not just the lower city, but the 'old' city of Hamilton.

When I lived in my previous home on Strathcona I did the research on this. I found a home in urban Waterdown with the identical assessed value. My property had no yard, shared driveway and was just off the noise of York Blvd. The Waterdown comparison was on a quiet street, garage, driveway, big yard. My taxes were double.

It has since come down and is slowly evening out as the suburbs see their new tax rate phased in over several years.

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By Cultosaurus (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 09:52:29 in reply to Comment 96606

Thank you for educating me on this. I had no idea this was the old setup.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 23:36:50 in reply to Comment 96625

sadly, most people aren't aware of this. The de-amalgamation folks are sure to keep the facts buried and simply rely on emotional hyperbole to rile up their residents when it comes to the reason their taxes needed to go up with amalgamation.

Fact is, their taxes should have gone up regardless of amalgamation. Even under the old regional system. We were all receiving the same service levels as urban areas. Why their 50% discount was allowed to exist for so long is something I don't have an answer for.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2014 at 14:45:56 in reply to Comment 96564

I thought the vandalism was in Stoney Creek? Or was it both?

The fact that this happened, worked and is now spoken about in glowing terms kinda blows me away. Textbook case of 'direct action' straight out of the suburbs...who would have thought?

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By one mans vandalism... (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 15:00:05 in reply to Comment 96591

I wonder if Gerry Davis wrote an irate letter to the police demanding they investigate the vandalism to parking meters the way he did with the people who painted crosswalks on dangerous intersections in the lower city. Suburban drivers expect to park for free on public property but "urbanists" are called entitled for wanting to be able to cross the street without getting killed...

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By DBC (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 12:58:31 in reply to Comment 96564

Funny how it all gets blamed on Amalgamation. Pretty brilliant on behalf of the Harris Tories actually.

The perfect storm that drove up everyone's taxes was the introduction of Market Value Assessment and the downloading of Social Service costs to municipalities.

It's just a whole lot easier to blame it all on Amalgamation I suppose.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 23:21:57 in reply to Comment 96580

This is a key point.

There are many variables at play, and downloading responsibility for social services was a big one. It's also gotten a lot more expensive to provide services over the past 15 years. And I wonder if the projections regarding the staffing requirements to serve amalgamated municipalities were sorely under-estimated.

It's a very complex issue.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 11:24:54 in reply to Comment 96564

"Most are paying higher taxes to cover public services for downtown Hamilton" Source please?

Also not sure how cherry picked, unsupported statements refute, or confirm the professor's assertion.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2014 at 10:49:39

Remember, old suburban/exurb folks vote. They vote more consistently than anybody else. They're not engaged in online discourse, and they're still sore about amalgamation.

Bratina is courting this demographic. They don't know that his statistics on LRT are deceiving and inaccurate. They don't know that de-amalgamation is functionally impossible. And the media they follow isn't going to tell them (well, Dreschel is giving Mayor Bratina a hard time about the de-amalgamation thing, at least). They just know he sounds right.

Bratina knows how to get elected. He might not know much else, but he knows that.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 23:07:07 in reply to Comment 96560

But they DO know that he basically did nothing about this issue up until now (if you can even characterize this sideshow presentation as doing something)

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 11:30:37

Two things:
1. I thought counsel prohibited Bratina from talking to the province without their express direction?

2. "Opening old wounds" is the best way to describe this. How can we hope to move forward as a city if we keep trying to take that city apart?

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By SeanM (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 11:58:55

The trouble was that the Harris-era amalgamations were not just politically motivated, they were also rushed and made little sense. Only a few, like finally joining the City of Kingston with suburban Kingston Township, made good sense. In Toronto, for example, it probably made sense to amalgamate York and East York with the old City of Toronto. York was one of the poorest municipalities in southern Ontario and had poor civic services; East York was a strange leftover. The total amalgamation of Toronto was rushed and political; it paved the way for Lastman and Ford.

In Ottawa and Hamilton, a smart person, tasked with the reorganization of the former Regional Municipalities of Ottawa-Carleton and Hamilton-Wentworth, would have probably decided that the boundaries between Ottawa and Nepean or Vanier or between Stoney Creek and Hamilton was invisible, yet there were still very rural townships like Goulbourn or Glanbrook that probably didn't really make sense in a mostly urban municipality, especially in Ottawa, in which rural farmers were especially upset about (and I quote, not at all agreeing) "having French shoved down their throats". A smart person might have created the City of Ottawa, the Rural Municipality of Carleton, the City of Hamilton (including Stoney Creek, Dundas, and the built-up area of Ancaster) and the Rural Municipalities of Glanbrook and Flamborough, dividing the rural part of Ancaster between them.

Urban (and I include suburban areas in this definition) have very different needs than rural and exurban areas, from water delivery, to transportation, to social services. At this point, I think any talk of "de-amalgamation" should focus on better reorganizing evident natural boundaries than try to restore old ones. Hamilton is coming together and there's little point trying to go back.

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted January 12, 2014 at 01:23:31 in reply to Comment 96576

The purpose of the Harris amalgamation was a to provide a gift to developers by enlarging municipal boundaries to include huge amounts of greenfield.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 23:11:22 in reply to Comment 96576

Agreed.

I think that now, the most constructive thing to do is move toward policies that reflect urban and rural needs and focus on providing the best value for money for each type of area.

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By porcupine (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 15:17:55 in reply to Comment 96576

As a rural Flamborough resident I agree with the substance of your post. I think Hamilton hasn't a clue what to do with its rural areas, and "Flamborough" more and more just means "Waterdown and its rapid expansion."

I hope vainly for some sort of green consciousness to take hold in the city in which there could be some sort of harmonious integration between the countryside and the urban, at the expense of suburban sprawl! Both rural folks who want to preserve the countryside and those in the downtown benefit from inner city renewal and densification.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 17:57:46 in reply to Comment 96648

You'll want to vote for McHattie then. ;-)

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 12:39:04

Professor Cobban, "Most outlying areas probably benefited. They ended up getting more services than they paid for in taxes."

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2014-01-09 14:10:52

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2014 at 14:11:16 in reply to Comment 96577

Note: I edited the parent comment at the commenter's request to fix a typo.

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By JVRudnick (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2014 at 13:23:19

Nice recap here....and as a Waterdown citizen....I especially noted the comments above concerning our town....

Now...lets see what the Mayor does next, eh!

Comment edited by JVRudnick on 2014-01-09 13:23:36

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 19:13:40 in reply to Comment 96584

Now...lets see what the Mayor does next, eh!

Does or says??
Surely folks out there are bright enough to see a hallow election ploy....the second time around. Or do we need to go through this same charade 3, 4, 5 times??

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By Brian (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 14:41:28

I would really like to read the study by the UWO professor. But how ....

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 15:56:55 in reply to Comment 96590

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 19:12:23

If anyone wants a TRUE education on this topic, have a chat with Terry Cooke. He's probably the most well versed person I've ever spoken with in Hamilton on the subject.

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By Lerfy (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 21:12:53

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 10, 2014 at 03:34:12 in reply to Comment 96613

It's odd how the urban new-age-of-Hamilton types area always so dismissive and snobbish towards those who want de-amalgamation.

Yes, especially when the people who want de-amalgamation always have such nice things to say about Hamilton and its people.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 23:07:00 in reply to Comment 96613

who is being dismissive and snobbish??

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By George (registered) | Posted January 09, 2014 at 22:06:07 in reply to Comment 96613

Lerfy wrote,

"It's odd how the urban new-age-of-Hamilton types area always so dismissive and snobbish towards those who want de-amalgamation."

To whom are you referring with that broad brush? It would be helpful to address your comment if you quoted someone specific.

Comment edited by George on 2014-01-09 22:06:48

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted January 12, 2014 at 01:21:25

The solution to Bratina's problems, then, may be right in front of his nose: empower the city's neighbourhoods and allow for greater community decision-making.

How would this be done? Can you provide an example in Ontario?

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By Waterdowner (registered) | Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:31:47

One point that seems to be missed, and I know I speak for some of us in Waterdown, is that aside from all the financial/political reasons for amalgamation we just don't identify with Hamilton. We pay our taxes to and receive our services from a place that is very far away from us or our regular routes. We need to drive through another city (Burlington) to get to most areas of Hamilton. If you need to take public transportation to Hamilton it goes through Burlington. The closest hospital is in Burlington. A lot of the non-local shopping we do is in Burlington, because it's closer. A lot of us work east and drive that direction every day, but never towards Hamilton. So when we had our own identity as a town ripped away, we were forced to deal with belonging to a city that is literally on the other side of another city, another side of the lake and the opposite direction from where we work.

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By dbow (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2016 at 21:38:26 in reply to Comment 98029

You're so close to Burlington, yet, because of the Hammer, so far away. Most of us in Burlington have never heard of, or been to, Waterdown. If you're sick of the beast that is Hamilton, move to Halton. It feels GOOD to be away from the beast!

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