Sizing up amalgamation, 20 years on
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Sizing up amalgamation, 20 years on

As voters head to the polls for two big elections this year, what’s next for the “megacity”?

Happy anniversary, amalgamation. Photo courtesy of Worrawat Engchuan via Flickr.

Much has changed in the 20 years since the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris decided to amalgamate East York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, York, and Toronto into a single unit, now known as the City of Toronto. Since 1998, Toronto has had four mayors, six municipal elections, and a population that has grown to more than 2.8 million. And with a provincial election scheduled for June and a municipal election scheduled in October, 2018 represents a unique moment to re-evaluate the priorities, opportunities, and direction of the City of Toronto as it leaves its teenage years and prepares to enter its 20s.

The push for amalgamation in 1997 was justified in terms of creating “cost-efficiencies” through centralizing services—an argument that failed to appease the fears of the very vocal anti-amalgamation groups across the (now former) municipalities who fought the move tooth and nail.

But amalgamation was pushed through, and on January 1, 1998, the “megacity” was born. Although the City of Toronto is young in relative terms, there has been ample opportunity for policymakers of all stripes to adjust to the new political realities posed by amalgamation.

Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) served as city councillor for the former City of York prior to amalgamation and has served on Toronto City Council for the last two decades.

Mihevc said although the cost-savings argument hasn’t borne itself out over time—and that any cuts came more as a result of technological efficiencies or simple service reductions—one positive aspect of amalgamation has been the creation of a more cohesive identity for the City of Toronto.

“I think we are now positioned for the world to see us as a city-state, and we can speak on issues with one voice,” said Mihevc. “To present ourselves to the world, not as a downtown Toronto or uptown Toronto, but as a Toronto, a city with 2.5 to 3 million people, I think amalgamation achieved that.”

While residents still identify strongly with their neighbourhoods—Scarborough, East York, North York, and so on—“there is a deeper affinity with this thing called the City of Toronto,” says Mihevc.

“It manifests itself with the way in which we present ourselves to the world, and I think that has yielded some positive benefits in terms of attractiveness to people abroad who want to come and live here and to study here and to do business here.”

Ontario Minister of Housing Peter Milczyn, first elected as a city councillor in the former City of Etobicoke in 1994, who then served on Toronto City Council from 2000 to 2014 before heading into provincial politics, called amalgamation “an idea that may have had some merit without any planning behind it or any sense of understanding what the institutions were,” but has ultimately proven to be a positive move.

“Going forward, some of the positive changes were that since much of the municipal services were already centralized prior to this, over time, Torontonians have taken on the view that they are Torontonians, that the municipality is just beginning now, coming out of its teens, to start to develop its real personality and its real corporate culture,” said Milczyn.

“We’re getting around to dealing with transit somewhat better, some of the issues around social equity are handled better as a single city. We’ve had our challenges, but if we go forward I think we have a much stronger city that’s more resilient and able to take up these challenges.”

Milczyn called the “cost-efficiency” language used by the Harris government 20 years ago as “cover” for the provincial downloading exercise that followed amalgamation.

“In Toronto’s case, or Metropolitan Toronto’s case, something like 80 per cent of the costs were already centralized—police, the TTC, waterworks, a number of other functions. So there really wasn’t further centralization to be had,” said Milczyn.

Moving beyond 20-year-old arguments, perhaps the most crucial piece for policymakers to consider now, is establishing additional and predictable revenue options to meet the evolving infrastructural demands of an evolving city.

For Mihevc, that will require a shift in the abilities of the City of Toronto to define its own financial destiny vis-à-vis the province of Ontario.

“I think history is on our side on this one—as cities grow in economic importance and as mayors rival the informal power of the premier in many cases, you will see the push come to the province to devolve some of those fiscal tools—everything from the gas tax, to road tolls, to sales tax,” Mihevc said. “There is too much economic might and too much economic loss if you do not give cities the powers to define their destinies a little more.

“It already has happened once, the province did give the City the authority to tax land transfers and we’ve yielded literally hundreds of millions of dollars from that,” said Mihevc.

Professor Enid Slack, director of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto, said that unlike other cities around the world with access to lucrative revenue like income taxes and sales taxes, it will be difficult to meet the city’s future requirements.

“The finance piece is so critical—it partly has to do with amalgamation, it partly has to do with cities in Canada that are growing, whose needs are changing, demographics are changing, economies are changing and expenditures are changing, but their revenues stay pretty much the same as they have always been: property taxes, user fees, and transfers from other levels of government,” said Slack.

Slack also noted that although the City balances its budget—it has to by law—and keeps property taxes low and looks relatively healthy, the real issue is the state of infrastructure and the need for new infrastructure.

“Can they do that with the existing sources of revenue? I think it’s going to be awfully hard to do that,” said Slack. “Where possible, decisions about services and infrastructure need to be made at the local level—and by local, I mean regional, but we don’t have a regional structure to do that.

“The province has stepped in on the land use issues and some of the transportation issues, but that’s a very top-down approach, and it flies in the face of local autonomy,” said Slack.

Councillor Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston), who was elected mayor of the former City of York in 1994 prior to winning her seat on Toronto City Council after amalgamation, also pointed out that the 2006 City of Toronto Act gave the City additional opportunities for revenue tools, some of which have been implemented.

But the province still holds most of the cards in terms of approving any municipal revenue initiatives.

“When it came to road tolls, which we supported, the [province] said no to it,” Nunziata said. “They say they are giving us the tools but there are certain issues that they won’t support. We don’t have 100 per cent support as far as revenue tools, because they have the final say no matter what we agree on.”

When Torontonians have a similar conversation about the state of our affairs 20 years from now when the “megacity” turns 40, amalgamation will be a distant memory. But residents will look back on the priorities of city council today.

For Nunziata, those priorities need to include a continued focus on improving public transit now, especially in the suburbs.

“I think we are heading in that direction, with the Eglinton Line and SmartTrack, but we need to do more than that,” Nunziata said. “Right now, it’s all focused downtown and it has been since amalgamation, and that’s one of the issues the councillors have out in the suburbs. There’s nothing being focused in our areas, which need a lot of financial support from the municipality to revitalize.”

As Toronto voters head to the polls for two elections this year, they’ll have an opportunity to shape the beginning of the next decade of the largest city in Canada—and to decide whether or not the path we’ve been on is the right one. Politicians at both levels will need to make some crucial decisions about infrastructural improvements, financing, and about Toronto’s political identity. Twenty years is an eternity in politics, but 2018 will be a crucial year in shaping the next two decades and beyond.