Amalgamation study could take years on the Saanich Peninsula

Mayors in Sidney, North and Central Saanich say they're happy to wait for provincial study into amalgamation.

Voters on the Saanich Peninsula indicated in the Nov. 15 civic election they want more information on what amalgamation would look like.

A majority of voters in the Nov. 15 municipal election on the Saanich Peninsula said they want to see what amalgamation could look like.

They were among the majority of Greater Victoria voters who said yes to a variety of ballot questions on the issue in their respective communities.

In Sidney, North Saanich and Central Saanich, the focus of the non-binding referendum question was getting the province to fund a study into what a joining of the three municipalities might look like. None of the new mayors elected said they were surprised by the result — not even in North Saanich, where the council had been reluctant to add the question to the ballot in the first place.

“People do want more information,” says Mayor Alice Finall.

She said the original question posed by Amalgamation Yes — the Victoria lobby group pushing for the amalgamation of all 13 area municipalities — was too vague.

“Their goal was amalgamation itself,” said Finall, “but no one knows what that will look like and what the costs will be.”

North Saanich enjoys some of the lowest residential taxes in Greater Victoria and Finall said people fear that could change under amalgamation.

“The issue took a big step forward with 75 per cent of voters in the region supporting the non-binding question (if it was on) Saturday’s municipal election ballot,” said John Vickers of Amalgamation Yes. “Now it’s up to the province, the only way it’s going to fly is if we really do see leadership from them. We want to see an end run here.”

B.C. Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, Coralee Oakes, stated recently the province will review the results of the referendum in greater detail.

“I remain committed to provide the support and resources required by the newly-elected local governments, once they have had an opportunity to discuss and review the results in greater detail,” she said.

What that means for the Peninsula is unknown, said Sidney mayor-elect Steve Price.

“It’s in the province’s hands now,” he said. “They’re the ones going to do the study and it’ll be totally out of our hands.”

Price, and his Peninsula mayoral counterparts, agree it will probably take the entire four-year term of the new councils in the region before any move is made — if it happens at all.

Central Saanich mayor-elect Ryan Windsor said the Nov. 15 result was not a vote for amalgamation, but for what it will look like here.

“It’s quite clear what people are asking for,” Windsor said. “It’s a process to investigate and it could take four years.”

He added he doesn’t want Saanich Peninsula municipalities to sit on the sidelines as the province investigates the feasibility of amalgamation. Windsor suggested Central Saanich, North Saanich and Sidney use their tri-municipal connection to meet and discuss next steps and what services the Peninsula already shares.

“It’s unclear what the province is saying right now,” he continued, “so if we start to prepare now we can keep the public aware of what’s going on.”

Finall said with all that the Peninsula municipalities share now — water and sewer, police, recreation and more — it’s hard to see where they can improve as the issue of amalgamation is studied further. Price added he and others want to see what amalgamation might look like.

“At this stage, people have been asked the (ballot) question, the study is to be prepared and that’s up to the province. Hopefully, it’ll come back to the communities to explain any options.”

Price said amalgamation cannot be imposed by the province — and if it goes that far, it would have to be done through a binding referendum in another election cycle, giving the people the final say.

Price and Finall weren’t in favour of Windsor’s idea about a committee on amalgamation through the Peninsula’s tri-municipal meeting process. Price said it’s an issue that can be talked about, but only so far.

“The study by the province needs to be in-depth and its terms of reference for all 13 municipalities alone could take years to complete.”

Vickers said he’s had communications with the ministry but it’s imperative now to keep moving that forward.

“What we’d like to see is a commission with experts and insight into the various issues, to study and come up with two or three different models, which will hopefully lead to a provincially run referendum in 2018 or a binding municipal referendum.”

— with files from Travis Paterson/Black Press