Peninsula communities mull merger

Politicians remain neutral for now on the question of amalgamation

Talking about amalgamation is fraught with pitfalls, as councillors around the table of a recent tri-municipal meeting were quick to point out.

They are, however, taking a few tentative steps into gathering information about what amalgamation might mean for the Saanich Peninsula.

Three mayors and chief administrative officers from the Saanich Peninsula will meet to discuss how to go about getting more information on amalgamation. The decision to do so was made at the joint council meeting between the district of Central Saanich and North Saanich and the Town of Sidney on March 13. The politicians were quick to point out this move is only being made to seek information and is neither pro-nor-anti amalgamation.

“The intent is not to jump right into amalgamation,” said former Central Saanich councillor Adam Olsen.

He was asked to speak to the issue, as it was at his prompting that the district council voted to put amalgamation on the table of the tri-municipal meeting.

“I could not answer questions about amalgamation when I was on council, there are too many questions,” he continued, “but there’s an opportunity for the three councils to look into it.”

Olsen said the topic was raised by residents when Central Saanich began talking about spending a lot of money to replace its municipal hall and police services building.

Central Saanich Mayor Alastair Bryson said his logic in looking at the issue stems from a question of whether maintaining separate identities as municipalities is more or less expensive than amalgamating into one, larger government structure.

“I see some logic in looking into amalgamation, especially if there’s an overall Peninsula identity,” Bryson said. “We haven’t done the work to find out about that.”

Bryson’s initial suggestion that the three municipalities investigate the viability of amalgamation — whether it’s viable, there’s support from residents and is cost effective — had others at the table slamming on the brakes.

North Saanich councillor and former mayor Ted Daly said the feelings he got from his community on the subject are completely different. He noted that he initially ran for council on a platform of amalgamation, losing badly and carrying that reputation to a degree into his forays into local politics.

“I was determined not to raise it again until there was a public upswell of demand,” Daly said. “I know that in our community (North Saanich), it’s a real sensitive issue.”

He said he could not support the idea of hiring a consultant to study the matter.

Most at the table agreed that the idea that amalgamation would save on costs and therefore be less of a burden on taxpayers, is not certain.

“There will be winners, losers, gains and losses in any major change,” said Sidney Mayor Larry Cross. “The cost savings won’t be there. Cost will migrate to the most expensive services over the long term. If people start talking about cost savings in this, they’d better think again.”

Central Saanich councillor Carl Jensen said that’s what additional research would determine — and address the assumptions people make about amalgamation.

“I’m willing to invest something to find out,” he said.

Sidney councillor Melissa Hailey noted that the close relationship that already exists between the three municipalities, lends itself to finding cost savings and resource-sharing right now.

North Sanich councillor Dunstan Browne said he feared that amalgamation would end up being more like absorption.

“I don’t feel North Saanich would go for it,” he said. “Yet, there is some rationale to ask the question and see if there are cost savings.”

North Saanich Mayor Alice Finall said amalgamation has no correlation with the state of the local economy or even the cost of doing business.

“I don’t feel that exploring this is a good use of council or staff time,” she said.

There was discussion about the apparent loss of public access to the democratic process, and to their elected officials, should a government get too large.

Representatives agreed, however, that what they were asking and commenting on was simply speculation and they, like citizens, have no real information on which to base opinion or decision.

“We need to first get the information,” said Bryson. “It’s not pro or anti amalgamation. We need the information to make an informed decision and respond to the public.”

The mayors and administrators are now tasked with discussing information-gathering options and will report back to the next tri-municipal meeting in Central Saanich. A date for that had not yet been determined.