Amalgamation 20 years later: Victoria County’s demise still rankles many rural constituents
It was perhaps the most divisive political debate in this area since self-government in 1863. Amalgamation — the forced bringing together of the constituent parts of the old Victoria County 20 years ago this month – is a word that still triggers much debate and tests professional relationships to this day.
The fissures still run deep, particularly amongst those over the age of 50. Many knowledgeable individuals who were there two decades ago have died, developed sudden political amnesia, or refused to become engaged in a retrospective of an issue they wish would just disappear.
The first 138 years
Pre-amalgamation, Victoria County consisted of 13 townships and six incorporated villages scattered across 2,856 square kilometres of the some of the most beautiful real estate in Ontario.
In 2000, the total population of Victoria County was 69,179 with Lindsay the dominant commercial and population hub with 21,885 people. The population of Victoria County was mainly rural, with only 34 per cent living in urban areas, like Woodville or Omemee.
On the eve of amalgamation these 16 areas each had a local council headed by a reeve, warden or mayor to deal with local issues and sent representatives to a county council, which dealt with costlier issues or ones that affected the whole county such as roads or libraries.
This dual-tier government was run by 96 local politicians who drew small salaries. Faye McGee, former Fenelon area municipal politician and member of county council, said Fenelon Township council, for instance, had salaries of only $25,000 a year for their reeve, deputy reeve and three councillors. Township representatives who sat on county council were paid an additional $100 for their monthly meeting. Some councillors, like those in Sturgeon Point collected no pay at all, volunteering their time for the betterment of the community.
McGee, the former deputy-reeve and reeve of Fenelon Township, was extremely proud that most of the townships, including her own, carried no debt.
“From 1990 to 2001, there had only been a 1 per cent tax increase in Fenelon Township,” McGee said. “There were only five people on council, and we shared offices with our staff. We knew what they were doing, and staff worked with us.”
“There were local experts who know the local problems intimately. The roads people knew every road and pothole because these were the same roads they drove on a daily basis. Response time was excellent because the depot was not miles away,” said ormer mayoral candidate and long-time Bobcaygeon resident Peter Weygang
The Common Sense Revolution
The new provincial government elected in 1995 was unlike any Ontario had seen before. Mike Harris, a former golf pro and municipal politician from North Bay, led his Progressive Conservative Party to a smashing defeat of the New Democrats under Bob Rae.
Harris was an ideologue, and he campaigned on a platform for fundamental change in how government operates and what level of services it should provide. His “Common Sense Revolution” said little about municipal government, but it was soon clear that significant changes to Ontario’s 800-plus municipalities were coming.
“The change that occurred from 1996-1999 in the relationship between the province and the municipalities was the most comprehensive reform of municipal governments since the Baldwin Act of 1849,” said Brock University political science Professor David Siegel, who specializes in local government, public policy, and administration.
According to Professor Lydia Miljan of University of Windsor, amalgamation paved the way for the partial or full downloading of millions of dollars worth of provincial government responsibilities such as social assistance, social housing, transit, roads, policing, public health and ambulance services to help the province balance its own books on the back of these soon-to-be much larger municipalities.
The Harris government told the people of Ontario that amalgamation of hundreds of disparate municipalities would increase efficiencies and accountabilities of local government and achieve cost savings through an economy of scale, Siegel wrote in a paper prepared for a conference on Municipal-Federal-Provincial relations at Queens University in 2003. And, the government made clear, it was prepared to force the restructuring.
While some municipalities volunteered to amalgamate “generally, however, amalgamations were imposed on unwilling municipalities,” according to a 2014 report by the Monk School of Global Affairs.
Victoria County council reacts
As forced and voluntary changes began to roll out across Ontario, “We looked closely into amalgamation and we made a decision that ‘no change’ was best for Victoria County,” McGee said.
The province disagreed. “Chris Hodgson (local Conservative MPP at the time and future minister of municipal affairs and housing responsible for amalgamations) made it clear multiple times that real change was coming and if we didn’t do it ourselves it would be imposed,” according to a person intimately familiar with the discussions because of a family member who was present at council at the time. (The person requested anonymity out of fear their small business might face repercussions in the community.).
“Too many folks on Victoria County council chose to ignore Chris’s urging to get with the program or lose all control over the final decisions,” the source added.
“There was little stuff going on like Bobcaygeon and Verulam amalgamating in 1999, Emily and Omemee talking about doing the same thing and Lindsay and Ops trying to figure shared services out, but that wasn’t enough for the province. Harris wanted the whole enchilada and local folks thought they could run the clock out on amalgamation, hoping soon the Conservatives would tire of it.”
The commissioner arrives
Under the provincial legislation governing amalgamations, a commissioner could only be appointed to oversee a change in county structure if they were invited in by one of the affected counties.
Victoria County council “believed that no one would break ranks after a ‘no change’ vote had been recorded locally. Council was furious when Emily Township and Lindsay called for a commissioner,” said another council insider. The person was granted anonymity because their comments were based on an in-camera (non-public) discussion.
The province appointed economics professor Harry Kitchen, who had a long history of work with, and for, municipal councils.
“I had absolute power,” Kitchen told the Advocate, “but at the same time there was tremendous pressure on the commissioner to get the job done.
“At minimum I was to provide a draft report, have one public meeting and then produce a final report. I felt abandoned by the province. I kept asking myself, ‘How do I do this?’” Kitchen said.
Kitchen was appointed in December of 1999 and soon discovered how difficult the task would be. “This was going to be a highly contentious issue,” Kitchen said. “I ended up with plainclothes OPP police protection as I travelled to and from my meetings and dealt with a public death threat levelled at a meeting in Bobcaygeon.”
Kitchen met with every council and its staff, and what Kitchen he discovered concerned him. “There was total dysfunction at county council. There was jealousy between the local communities. I understand that folks get fired up and get jealous about changing boundaries, but they ignored the fact that Harris was saying ‘amalgamate or you won’t get funding from the province.’” Kitchen even hired an independent accountant because he didn’t trust the numbers he was being given.
Opinion at four public meetings ran largely in favour of maintaining the two-tier system.
“Kitchen received 613 submissions, 75 per cent calling for the status quo,” former reeve McGee said, “and ignored them all.”
After looking at four different options — keeping the status quo, a new single-tier government, a new dual-tier government made up of three municipalities representing the north, central and southern sections of the county and three new free-standing counties — Kitchen decided on a single tier.
“The single tier was cheaper, and it would end duplication. There was no advantage to the dual-tier proposals, or at least none that was apparent to me,” Kitchen said.
“I also decided to create different ward boundaries to force a paradigm shift and end the parochialism that could come from the previous county structure,” Kitchen added.
The late Art Truax, first mayor of the newly amalgamated entity told Kitchen that “the new boundaries were the most successful thing to come out of amalgamation.”
Kitchen also said that twice during the deliberations MPP Chris Hodgson tried to influence the final decisions, and twice was rebuffed by the commissioner. Hodgson did not return the Advocate’s calls for this story.
Kitchen’s final report to the province created a firestorm of controversy. His call for a one-tier system with a mayor and 16 councillors, and to rename Victoria County the City of Kawartha Lakes, split local residents into two intellectually opposed camps: one supporting the call for amalgamation and one calling for the report to be rescinded.
John Panter, a former Verulam Township resident and member of Voices of Central Ontario (an anti-amalgamation group united largely by libertarian principles), said amalgamation was designed “to benefit Lindsay. Harris wanted to create municipalities capable of accepting the financial burden of anticipated downloading. Those of us living in the rural areas … wanted our taxes to be kept low and for us to be left alone.”
“Rural people were getting a free ride on the back of Lindsay,” Kitchen countered, “and Lindsay was being taken advantage of by the rural areas who used the parks, ball diamonds and arenas paid for by Lindsay taxpayers.
“Amalgamation ensured a better sharing of the tax base right across the city.” Townships and villages that previously had very little tax income now had access to a larger pool of money spread over the whole area — albeit with more expenses as a result of downloading.
As Kawartha Lakes enters its third decade of existence, Mayor Andy Letham says he chooses to “focus on the future and not the past. It is what it is, and we need to keep the momentum going,” Letham said. Letham, who operated a successful textile manufacturing business in Lindsay for 14 years, did not enter municipal politics until 2003 as a councillor for Ward 11.
It’s not quite that simple, said Councillor Emmett Yeo, who represents the northernmost, least-populated ward in Kawartha Lakes. “Until everyone comes to terms that we are not a city, we are a collection of communities that service a cottage industry, we will continue to tread water.”
Councillor Pat Dunn of Lindsay said amalgamation has worked “surprisingly well.”
His colleague Doug Elmslie, who represents the Fenelon area, agreed but said there’s room for improvement. “The city needs to be more responsive, communicate better and try to provide the best possible service we can.”
Councillor Kathleen Seymour-Fagan agreed, suggesting “maybe stronger knowledge of how things have worked out in favour of residents in the entire municipality (is necessary).”
There remains a vocal contingent of rural citizens, though, who believe they have been rebuffed and dismissed under a single-tier government. Councillor Ron Ashmore said many people in his ward “feel they are left out and forgotten.”
One way to improve this, he says, would be for the city to allow councillors to “monitor and access case files opened on constituent concerns.
As a result, communication and trust in the system would vastly improve.”
Elmslie noted things like emergency services, roads, parks and recreation and engineering “are probably more efficient and provide a more even and economical service,” under a single-tier government, but acknowledged the advertised cost savings never occurred.
“We did not see the reduction in taxes,” said Dunn, “but I believe we are in a much better place both in services and the cost of providing them.”
Compared with the old system, one-tier government is “more efficient in coordinating city-wide priorities and local services,” said Kawartha Lakes Chief Administrative Officer Ron Taylor Services are delivered more equitably, and political and administrative perspectives are city-wide and not localized.”
And besides, lower costs were never the focal point for the new system, said Harry Kitchen. “Amalgamation made for a stronger municipality that was more able to deal with problems,” he added, “and that is far more important than any cost savings that might have been accrued.”
The new reality didn’t always match up with old expectations. “Because we are now a larger and more complex organization it takes longer to get things done and this results in frustrations for some folks,” said Elmslie.
Councillor Pat Dunn said attitudes about Lindsay’s central role in the 20-year-old city also play a part. “Our rural citizens have been shopping, socializing, and eventually retiring in our major centres for years. Their children go to school here (in Lindsay) and often times end up working and living in our larger towns,” Dunn said, and yet resentment about Lindsay still lingers.
Councillor Tracy Richardson said she has lived her entire life in a rural area by choice. “Sometimes it’s not always convenient but I am certainly proud to be part of the Kawartha Lakes community. Sometimes we need to focus on what we have and not what we don’t.”
While some people might choose to move on, as Kawartha Lakes enters its third decade of existence, some believe it is never too late to recognize the 2003 referendum on amalgamation where 51 per cent of local voters chose to return to a two-tier governmental structure like the one in Peterborough County. It was a referendum that then-opposition leader Dalton McGuinty said he would respect, but never acted on.
“We were given the right to choose,” said amalgamation opponent Faye McGee. “Hodgson gave us the referendum. Dalton McGuinty gave us a letter promising to support the outcome and then his representative John Gerretsen came to council once they were in power and said ‘not at this time.’”
Like McGee, John Panter says de-amalgamation is still possible. It would simply take a politician with some courage to admit amalgamation was a mistake.”
While some are still hanging on to the cause of de-amalgamation, most residents of Kawartha Lakes are simply getting on with life, whether they remember the restructuring fight or not.
Even though de-amalgamation and a return to the old Victoria County is not likely, even the keenest supporters of the single-tier city talk about for the importance of nurturing individual communities while fostering a sense of belonging to something larger.
“Communities were upset they would lose their identities,” said Pat Warren, a councillor in both Victoria County and Kawartha Lakes. “Twenty years on, many communities have retained their identities and in some cases improved their sense of place through volunteerism.”
Seymour-Fagan agreed. “Every village and hamlet has its own identity and pride. We still have our challenges, although we are well on our way to working efficiently as a single-tier municipality.”