Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
June 01, 2000
U of G researchers file interim report card on rural municipal amalgamation
Two University of Guelph researchers have discovered that although rural amalgamation and restructuring are rarely popular with voters -- who see them as a loss of community identity -- the process is proving to be a success in lowering tax rates, improving services and reducing dependence on the provincial government.
"Report on Municipal Restructuring in Rural Ontario," a new province-wide survey of 548 rural municipal council heads by Prof. John FitzGibbon, director of Guelph's School of Rural Planning and Development, and doctoral student Robert Summers, offers a real-time glimpse into how Ontario's rural communities are coping with restructuring and government cuts to their funding.
"Rural communities face challenges," said FitzGibbon. "They are learning to cope with downloading of services, they are trying to retain existing development and attract new development, and they are working to enhance the voice of rural communities in a province increasingly urban in nature. Our research shows that municipalities hope that amalgamation leads to increased services, reduced overlap in service delivery and greater self-sufficiency, and encourages economic development and fiscal accountability to taxpayers."
The researchers found that fewer than 20 per cent of survey respondents said they restructured because it was popular within their communities to do so. Also, communities have misgivings about the future, believing restructuring is not over yet, and smaller communities continue to worry that their voices will be lost if they amalgamate with larger municipalities.
"Municipalities realize the value of restructuring, but they also have as a high priority protecting the community's values and identity," said FitzGibbon.
The researchers found that how amalgamation is handled is almost as important as the amalgamation itself. Where public input in the restructuring process was high, municipalities tended to be satisfied with the outcome of restructuring, whereas communities where there was no public input seemed to be less satisfied.
Larger municipalities are happier with amalgamation than smaller ones are. Communities with populations under 2,500 are satisfied with their restructuring, but less so (65.4 per cent of those with a decided opinion) than those communities with populations of 2,500 or more (79.3 per cent).
Despite the reluctance of some rural voters, 80 per cent of survey respondents said that the outcome of restructuring had been satisfactory to date or it was too soon to tell, whereas only 13 per cent said the outcome had been unsatisfactory.
As a result of amalgamation, a significant proportion of municipalities saw tax rates decline across the board, and most survey respondents believed that services -- police, fire, roads, recreation, library and garbage -- had improved or been unaltered by amalgamation. Only a small percentage of respondents said the quality of these services had declined.
Most respondents also said they believed their restructured municipality had equal or greater political independence than before restructuring, and three-quarters said councillors now represent a larger electorate. Most said they now had less financial dependence on the provincial government.
"There is still some underlying resentment of restructuring," said FitzGibbon, "but I think many now believe that restructuring has been essential in helping rural municipalities to modernize."
What is not in dispute, according to the researchers, is the response to external and community pressures. Faced with common problems and not enough cash, Ontario's rural municipalities are teaming up. In total, 78.5 per cent of respondents said amalgamation is an approach they are using to restructure. Only 8.2 per cent of survey respondents said they were restructuring internally only, without involving any outside municipalities.
Contact Prof. John FitzGibbon at 519-824-4120, Ext. 6784/6462, or contact Communications and Public Affairs at 519-824-4120, Ext. 6982.