For some, there’s never a great time to revisit an unpopular idea ... or so the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce may soon find out if it pushes its idea of municipal amalgamation much further.
The Chamber may find that the notion is no more popular than it was in 2000 when the University of Saskatchewan political science professor Joe Garcea released his report on the Task Force on Municipal Legislative Renewal — work that was financed by the NDP government’s Municipal Affairs department.
Garcea’s report 12 years ago recommended that the 1,006 local governments at the time (rural and urban municipalities, hospital boards, school boards, etc.) be dissolved and replaced by 125 municipal districts.
You may also recall that the idea was met with a firestorm of protest — much of it from the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities who proposed a referendum on what rural citizens favoured “forced amalgamation.” (Generally, people don’t favour being “forced” to do anything.)
But equally adamant was the then Sask. Party Opposition. Then Opposition MLA Bob Bjornerud suggested that: “Garcea never did one bit of homework to find out if we save one dollar by what he is talking about.” (Really? The Sask. Party couldn’t see saving in reducing bureaucracy back then when its own budget is now cutting programs and reducing the number of civil servants by 16 per cent?)
Well, fast-forward 12 more years and what’s intriguing is how much has changed in the rural Saskatchewan economy and how little has changed in local governance.
For example, the timing of the Garcea report coincided with the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool’s “Project Horizons” that closed 235 local elevators. Yet at this year’s the 107th annual SARM convention, we didn’t see many less rural municipalities than the 297 RMs that were around during the controversy of the Garcea report.
In other words, if local governments don’t like forced amalgamation, they don’t seem particularly eager to do it on a voluntary basis, either. But given the Sask. Party’s past positions and close alignment with SARM, it would seem doubtful that the government will have much interest in “forcing” the issue.
All this makes the timing of the Chamber of Commerce’s bold proposal to reduce the 800-odd urban and rural municipal governments to a more manageable number that much more intriguing.
Interestingly, the Chamber’s arguments are similar to what was presented by Garcea more than a decade ago. There are surely cost-savings and other efficiencies to be found — especially since a lot RMs don’t have much responsibility beyond gravel and pest control and haven’t had much of role in rural governance for 40-plus years. But what may be most interesting in the Chamber’s proposal — to be voted on a resolution at its annual gathering May 9 to 10 — is that the argument about the untold lost economic opportunity.
Also interesting is SARM President Dave Marit argument: “Nobody’s been able to prove it’s going to more efficient.” It’s near identical to what we heard from his predecessor Sinclair Harrison and Bjornerud a decade ago.
Again, it would seem relatively easy to find efficiencies in reducing government size. What is truly tougher, however, is identifying the economic opportunities lost or services that can’t be delivered because their jurisdictions are just too small and disjointed.
In fairness to the RMs and smaller municipalities, there is a lot of creativity and innovation at the grassroots level — something I see every year as a judge for the Saskatchewan Municipal Awards.
What’s also evident, however, is that there is still too much local squabbling and too little co-operation. It is for that reason the Sask. Party government should at least examine the Chamber’s amalgamation proposal.
Sure, some find amalgamation unpopular. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a serious look.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 15 years.