View From the "Yes" Side
by Lynne Boldt
Nov. 27, 2002
One week ago a new column was introduced in The Post, entitled "The Mayor's Chair." This week, as part of The Post's "dedication to maintaining free and open discussions of views and issues affecting its readers", another new column is being introduced.
I'd like to use this first column as a bit of an overview and introduction to V.O.C.O. (Voices of Central Ontario). Just about three years ago residents of Victoria County were told that an unelected Commissioner over the course of 90 days, would decide the fate of their local municipal government. Consequently on January 1, 2001 local government as we knew it was abolished. The County of Victoria and all incorporated municipalities ceased to exist and in their place was the single tier governance to become known as The City of Kawartha Lakes, comprised of 16 numbered wards.
Victoria County residents have been affected in many different ways by amalgamation, but the most common and most disturbing effect felt from the very beginning was the lack of democracy used in the process. This was followed very closely by the loss of representation. From the day King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, a taxpayers' right to representation has been passed in trust to each generation. Democracy in and of itself has been at the root for far too many members of our past generations who literally paid with their lives to preserve that right. That torch was passed to us.
A grassroots group of local citizens, seeing and hearing all that was occurring in Victoria County at the time of the Commissioner's appointment was formed to somehow try and hold onto some of the local representation that was being wiped away. The V.O.C.O. name itself is an acronym for Voices of Central Ontario, but is derived from the latin language meaning "I call" or "I command", and that's what the voices were in fact doing. People had questions, they had concerns, and no where were the answers forthcoming.
V.O.C.O. began holding and hosting public Townhall meetings where, with the assistance of noteable Guest Speakers, answers to the publics' questions were sought. With the introduction in 2001 of a newly elected Council that superceded an appointed Transition Board, rather than getting down to business it soon became apparent that no business would be accomplished until the "issues" surrounding the amalgamation itself were worked out. Unfortunately, even today most of those beginning issues still exist, only with the addition of more, almost on a weekly basis.
We now have, for all intents and purposes, two years under our belts and yet we are still hearing people say "give it a chance". Well, VOCO was recently contacted by a citizen in the well-known amalgamated area of Chatham-Kent. This area is now five years into their amalgamation and he pointed out to us, that while the province still claims "amalgamation works", in their area they have experienced a 52% AVERAGE tax hike to local farms, and this year in order to try to keep the municipality running they are now closing arenas, community centres, and even parks in the outlying areas. We thought it bad when we just had to start subsidizing streetlights and sidewalks. Do we really want to wait until we begin losing our "outlying" arenas, parks and community centers?
To those that say their services are better than they've ever been, congratulations. But, did anyone ever ask the people if they wanted their garbage picked up on Friday when they leave their cottage on Sunday night? Did anyone ever ask the people if they wanted to pay extra for that garbage service to be "city"-wide? Even the Mayor himself acknowledges that services in general may have increased - but at a cost. What cost are we willing to pay for what services, and for how long?
To claim that clerks and treasurers have not been replaced by highly paid Directors and Consultants is still extremely misleading. We did not have 16 Directors of Planning, we did not have 16 Directors of Parks & Recreation, we did not have 16 Human Resource Directors and we did not have 16 Public Works Directors. I'm certain that many of the clerks from our former municipalities would support that statement. In the majority of cases, our elected Councils did the consulting and facilitating when new issues arose, and they knew full well the impact their decisions would have on their immediate residents, and themselves as well, because they lived in their municipalities and would reap or regret directly the results of those decisions.
To claim that amalgamation has saved money is totally disputable. The Commissioner told us amalgamation would save $3 million dollars, and it would cost us $5.5 million. All we can surmise is that it has cost somewhere between $11 and $19 million and there's no sign of the savings yet. Again, the Mayor is on record as saying no "net" savings have been realized. I also say surmise, because in the 11th month of 2002, there are still no audited reports from 2001. How can we possibly even enterain the idea of a 2003 budget when the books are no less than two years behind???
These are but a few of the "hot button" issues, there's no possible way anyone could summarize all of them, and the debate on both sides could last for decades. In my opinion, the bottom line still remains ... the democratic process of which we should all have been and remain to be a part, has been clouded, tarnished and erroded to the point where finally the Province, through our MPP has acknowledged there are serious problems and has seen fit to offer the people, albeit a little late, a say in the future direction of their municipalities. This acknowledgement in and of itself is a victory for VOCO and the only weapon that can be used against us now is our own apathy. The best defense??? Get involved!!!