It was an exciting week for 37-year-old Darrell Dexter, freshly elected by a margin of less than a dozen votes to Dartmouth City Council.
Back in 1994 he had no long-term political aspirations. Dexter, who was president of the Dartmouth Downtown Development Corporation, ran for council because he wanted to solve some issues for Ward Three, Downtown Dartmouth.
But then, days after he was sworn in, the province announced that in 1996 it would amalgamate roughly 5,500 square kilometres of rural, suburban, and urban communities to create the Halifax Regional Municipality.
“For all the people who had gotten elected, I remember just how disappointed everybody was because you put a lot of effort in, especially in municipal elections because you don’t have parties and donors and all that stuff,” Dexter says. “To be told the thing is essentially going to be done away with, your job you worked for is going to be done away with, that was kind of a shock.”
The premier of the day was John Savage. He wasn’t fond of amalgamation initially but he had a lot on his plate. Mayor Mike Savage says his father had to deal with casinos and toll highways.
“We had had something like 15 or 16 deficit budgets in a row, the debt was piling up, and it was the early part of the demographic crunch,” Savage says. “It was tough.”
More than anything else Savage says he remembers the politics of it, how in the beginning the chambers of commerce came together to signal that amalgamation could happen.
“It’s never easy to do these things and it’s never without its challenges but I think it takes a sense of purpose to make it happen and there’s going to be people who feel aggrieved throughout the process,” Savage says. “That’s natural.”
Back then, Dartmouth council had 14 aldermen with Mayor Gloria McCluskey at the helm. Amalgamation was a notion that had been bandied about in the provincial government for years. Back then, some community services were an expensive municipal responsibility. In 1992, a task force recommended the Province take over “people” services so municipalities could focus on local services like streets.
“What it did was set up winners and losers among the municipalities,” Dexter says. “Dartmouth was a winner because we were taking over relatively small numbers of new streets but we were off-loading a lot of the costs associated with social assistance.”
Many urban communities were winners, but Halifax County was a loser because of all the rural roads it inherited. The task force also recommended an amalgamated government for the Halifax region. “The only way you could balance all that off is if you amalgamate everyone together because the winners in Dartmouth get set off against the losers in Halifax County,” Dexter explains.
After a few years of planning, the province made the transition official on April 1, 1996.
Dexter remembers it was a hard sell. Trying to tell people there is going to be tax savings is hard because people don’t believe it, he says, and any benefits get consumed in the debate over what is being lost.
“Amalgamation at the time was really a hot-button issue and people in Bedford wanted it to stay Bedford, people in Dartmouth wanted it to stay Dartmouth,” he says.
Not much has changed where that is concerned. Many people in communities throughout HRM rebel against being labelled Halifax. (See the recent debate over HRM signs that say “Halifax” in Dartmouth parks.)
Savage says one reason he knows amalgamation has been successful is because everyone seems to complain equally that they’re getting the short end of the stick. And it’s easy to blame amalgamation for everything. One man complained to Savage the lakes used to freeze better before amalgamation.
Amalgamation was a good idea gone wrong, says Kevin Lacey, Atlantic Canada director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “It has resulted in higher costs for government and as a result, higher taxes,” he says. It was a good idea in the beginning but when “government got their mitts on it” it got more expensive, Lacey says. “The costs initially were supposed to be about $10 million and it went to $40 million when all was said and done.”
Jack Novack, director of the local government program at Dalhousie University, said when amalgamation was popular in the 1990s there wasn’t a lot of research, but there is now.
“It’s not cheaper and there are a variety of reasons for it,” he said. “The research is pretty clear now that efficiency occurs now at different population levels for different services. As you move to a much larger area, what happens is you might be more efficient for one service but you’ve lost efficiency for another.”
The idea that one police chief, for example, is cheaper than four police chiefs doesn’t work when a larger police force requires deputy police chiefs and support staff. And collective agreements and salary packages rise to the highest common denominator.
“The other thing they completely missed was the integration of the systems that had to do with computers, and none of the systems, software or hardware, matched very well,” Novack says “It took years and years to figure this stuff out.”
Residents’ attitudes towards recreation can be very different in rural and urban communities, Novack says, but under amalgamation people in one community want a recreation facility as nice as the one in another community. And why shouldn’t they? We’re all part of HRM now.
“It’s very difficult politically to say no, you can’t have it,” Novack says.
Amalgamation didn’t have to be an all-or-nothing scenario, Novack says. There are communities in other parts of the country who have inter-municipal agreements or shared services on big items. (For example, pre-amalgamation, the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth and Halifax County shared bus and ferry service via Metro Transit).
“This is a key question that no one ever does ask when they’re looking at amalgamation: what do you get through integration that you do not get through cooperation?” Novack says. “And the architects of amalgamation can rarely answer that question effectively.”
People tend to look at the wrong things in amalgamation, Savage said. Reducing administration and the number of politicians are fairly minor in the budget, he says.
“You can have some efficiencies by bringing some things together like police forces, fire departments, purchasing, and those kinds of thing,” Savage says. “But the real benefit of amalgamation in my view are economic development and land-use planning.”
Before amalgamation, most development happened outside of the core, making the downtown suffer, plus there was competition between areas like Burnside and Bayers Lake.
“I think by anybody’s definition it’s been a good run economically for Halifax so Halifax Regional Municipality has been certainly a lot more good than bad, but you will hear more about the bad than the good.” There will always be questions about how to serve rural, suburban, and urban communities all at once, Savage says.
Halifax will continue to grow as people continue to seek work in urban centres. The trick, Savage says, is to make sure it’s not at the expense of the province. Geographically, it’s hard to tell if HRM will expand its boundaries in the future to absorb struggling rural communities, but Savage says that’s definitely not on his agenda right now.
Some people have always been, and still are, concerned about the identities of small communities being swallowed by the whale that is HRM. But Dexter says his Dartmouth neighbourhood is in no danger.
“What I hear from people is Dartmouth is still Dartmouth,” he says. “We have Two if by Sea, with its I-heart-Dartmouth marketing, Joel Plaskett, we have all these things that are Dartmouth. They’ve changed from what they were 30 years ago but there are still things that are Dartmouth.”