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June 12, 1998 Halifax Herald

Amalgamation ripoff: Time to eat words again

Four years ago, believing that the Savage government's decision to amalgamate metro Halifax with its suburbs was a positive move for taxpayers, I wrote a supportive column. Now that our pockets are continually being called upon to cover "unforseen" costs, I lament doing so. The support I gave bears no excuse; I was old enough to know that when a government undertakes a chore of this nature, things usually get screwed up. True to form, the positive aspects of merger have mostly evolved into negatives.

Setting the stage for converting positive into negative was the seeming lack of logic used when implementing some aspects of merger. Perhaps the most illogical undertaking was the marrying up of Halifax County's rural and urban areas. For the life of me I can't figure out what metropolitan Halifax has in common with such places as Ecum Secum, Necum Teuch, Hubbards, etc, or vice versa. Common sense should have mandated that most rural communities be annexed to other rural municipalities.

The list of complaints about amalgamation is so long that knowing where to start is a problem. Hence, here are a few at random.

The predicted improvement of services hasn't materialized. In fact, many of us believe that services are below pre-amalgamation levels. The conditions of many streets within HRM's boundaries tend to bear witness to this contention.

Then, recall the promise that vast savings were to be realized by eliminating duplication of services. As taxes rise to cover the expense of running the "less expensive" Halifax Regional Municipality, one might be excused for asking: Did the promised savings ever exist, or were they just a figment of a highly paid consultant's imagination?

I lean on the side of those who believe, provided the process had been properly controlled, that savings could have been realized. But the means to realize savings were lost when those putting together the new municipality's operational by-laws failed to make provisions to hold in check the unfailing quest of many politicians and public servants to take from the public purse more than it can afford to give. Also, in preparing estimates, they apparently overlooked such things as how to finance a large Council, which needs to be trimmed down to 10 or 12 bodies.

Then there is the rising debt. At amalgamation, the four municipal units had a combined debt of $180 million; today, itís approximately $340 million. At the rate it's rising, a great chunk of municipal taxes will soon be needed to service it. These funds would be far better spent building roads and funding other necessities.

Speaking of the debt situation, residents of the City of Halifax seem to have gotten the short end of the stick. When the city was forced into amalgamation, its debt was on the way down and its goal of becoming a pay-as-you-go operation was in sight. Now, city residents are being swallowed up by a sea of increasing red ink.

Aggravating HRM's financial mess are the high wages paid to its bureaucracy. If an affordable and fair method was set up prior to merger for striking pay levels for the new municipality's civic workers, it must be getting rusty from lack of use. It appears that pay rates are pulled out of the blue and implemented. Without regard to financial consequences, many bureaucrats, in particular senior ones, are getting paid much higher wages than were paid to those who did the same type of work in the former municipalities. This is unrealistic. Public service wages must be pegged to what a local economy can afford; it is a blueprint for financial disaster to do otherwise. Wealthy domains such as Ontario can afford to live high off the hog. Ours is poor; it cannot.

Itís time to answer this question: Do high wages attract the best people? I can state from experience that all to frequently the answer is no. High wages often attract individuals who are mainly interested in money. Decent wages, good working conditions, and job security hold more attraction for many well-qualified workers than vast sums of money.

Credence is given to this notion by the fact that top jobs in the former city of Halifax were filled by top notch people. These people, at much lower rates, did a bang up job of administering the City's affairs and ratepayer satisfaction was high. Today, we have highly paid bureaucrats and the level of ratepayer satisfaction is low. Need one say more?

What has been said for the pay rates of bureaucrats can also be said for that of politicians. Prior to amalgamation, aldermanic and mayoralty positions did not go unfilled because of low pay. In those days, money was not the main attraction for aspirants to public office; an opportunity to perform a public service was. Walter Fitzgerald and his peers were good mayors at salaries hovering around $48,000, and most aldermen did excellent work for reasonable stipends.

Most things created by humans can be repaired and restructured - and that includes amalgamation. Therefore, the provincial government, holding responsibility for creating HRM, has a moral obligation to ratepayers to fix what it begot.

Daniel N. Paul

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