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Biz community quizzes NV mayors

Amalgamation remains a hot topic

IT was a fine luncheon until someone had to go and utter the "A-word."

The perennial amalgamation question came up for a captivated crowd of North Vancouver Chamber of Commerce members who leaned forward in their seats as the two North Vancouver mayors explained why the municipalities ought, or ought never, become one.

City Mayor Darrell Mussatto and district Mayor Richard Walton were guests of a chamber luncheon Thursday, to take questions from the business community.

The larger, yet less cash-flush district is perceived to have the most to gain from a hypothetical union, from the perspective of district council and taxpayers, Walton said. "I think, in the last 50 years, it's almost automatic with the district," Walton said. "I've never worked with a councilor who didn't support amalgamation."

The assertion drew laughs from the crowd when it was suggested city Coun. Don Bell, formerly the mayor of DNV, was a sleeper agent sent to bring about amalgamation from within the city.

But, Mussatto cautioned, while the thought of amalgamations of like-municipalities may "feel good," they rarely, if ever, result in the cost savings the local governments were hoping to see.

"The evidence is pretty clear if you do any research that if you do it for financial reasons, you're not going to save any money," he said.

Mussatto pointed to the 1996 amalgamation of Halifax, Dartmouth and Bedford as an example. Post-amalgamation, the city piled on millions more in debt in the ensuing years.

The reason, he stated, is that amalgamations come with nasty growing pains, as taxpayers in neither municipality are eager to see their services go down to match their neighbours' service levels, so servicing and costs go up for both former neighbours.

Differences in delivery of services between private sector and unionized city staff that have evolved in two local governments are also notoriously difficult to marry together, he added, citing garbage collection for multi-family residences and business as an example.

Instead, Mussatto suggested regional governance and financing for services like water, sewer and land use planning, exactly as Metro Vancouver operates, as a much better model.

Roughly half of those in attendance applauded. As for the notion of regional policing, it would likely come at the expense of local priority setting, Mussatto said, but added it would be West Vancouver that would stand to benefit most as its policing infrastructure and costs could be absorbed by a single North Shore police force, but would not lose any noticeable level of service.

While there appears to be no sign of a budge on the amalgamation issue, the two mayors were "joined at the hip" according to moderator Mike Watson on some other broader issues including philosophy on development and attraction of business to their respective jurisdictions.

In his opening remarks, Walton quoted from an American urban studies academic who found that cities that prosper today are ones that can attract the 20 to 40 demographic, which sadly, the district has been failing to do.

But hopefully, Walton said, the seeds of a more prosperous district lie in its new official community plan, which calls for denser, walkable urban centres, which tend to be more attractive and affordable for that demographic.

The city meanwhile is also trying to make itself equally desirable for businesses and a mix of younger residents, Mussatto said. While the development proposal for the Safeway site has been stalled and sent back to another public hearing, it is the type of development he would like to see in the city's core.

brichter@nsnews.com

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