Two North Vans too many?
For as long as the iconic twin peaks of The Lions have towered over the North Shore, there’s been talk of “harmonizing” their stony redundancies and making do with just one. Well, almost.
In truth, the ongoing North Vancouver amalgamation debate — as perennial to the North Shore landscape as snow atop those granite peaks — officially got its start on Oct. 23, 1957.
That’s when, according to District of North Vancouver records, the first committee was set up to look for cost efficiencies in uniting the two North Vans. Studies were done and referenda were held throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. But the idea — while polling well in the district — never held as much sway in the city.
That may be changing.
Prior to 1907, there was but one North Vancouver, a district reaching all the way from Deep Cove to Lions Bay. At its heart, Lower Lonsdale had become a bustling business hub brimming with urbanites who increasingly looked to the outer ring of forest and farms around them not as a bucolic bedroom community but as an albatross of wasted tax dollars.
And so it was that the City of North Vancouver was incorporated out of the district. And a few years later, in 1912, West Vancouver would follow suit.
As longtime district councillor and hobby historian Doug MacKay-Dunn puts it, “The city wanted sewers; the district needed roads.”
However simplistic that sounds, it’s as true now as it was then in describing how the pace of development informs the amalgamation debate.
Today, City of North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto tells The Outlook he won’t entertain the idea of amalgamation until the district meets the same benchmarks for urban density that the city has.
Last year the district adopted an Official Community Plan that proposes long-term densification around the district’s town and village centres while growing its residential housing stock with infill housing. It’s a step in the right direction, Mussatto agrees. “But don’t just tell me,” he says. “Show me.”
Mussatto is the first to admit that city residents have reaped huge benefits from having the district act as a buffer around them, limiting expansion, increasing urban density, stoking desirability and lowering everyone’s taxes in the process. And those are advantages he’s rightfully not ready to give up. “I wasn’t elected to look after district residents,” he says. “I was elected to look after the city.”
With or without Mayor Mussatto on board, Coun. MacKay-Dunn is poised to re-open the amalgamation debate with what he’s calling a “blue ribbon committee” on the economics of unification, whatever its findings may be. And at the North Vancouver Chamber of Commerce mayors’ luncheon this week, the ‘A-word’ will be top of mind for most.
“If you put a committee together for six months, they’ll come up with a report that’s compelling,” MacKay-Dunn says, “whether they find savings or not.
“To those who don’t even want to do that,” he adds, “I say, ‘Why?’”
With the North Shore home to some of the province’s highest municipal spending increases in recent years, according to a 2011 small-business report, the first and most obvious place to look for taxpayer savings in an amalgamated North Van is in senior staff salaries.
Currently, the city and the district both commit a little less than a third of their total operating budgets to payroll.
In 2010, district staff cost taxpayers approximately $42,303,885, while city staff were paid a total of $30,854,372. Divided up by population, using 2006 census data, that means each district resident paid about $512 for municipal staff in 2010, while city residents each paid about $683.
Much of that disparity can be accounted for in the $10.6 million the city paid to employees making over $100,000 a year as compared to the $6.3 million in that same bracket in the district. That, despite the district having nearly double the city’s population.
“There’s an urban myth out there saying that if we amalgamate, then city dwellers are going to pay more in taxes,” MacKay-Dunn says. “But really there’s only one taxpayer on the North Shore.”
That’s to say, in his opinion, city and district residents are both paying a premium for services which, if consolidated, could be had for less.
How much less is impossible to quantify, though, as combining two municipal staffs into one large government is never just a matter of terminating one municipality’s senior management and folding entry-level and middle-magagement workers into one big pool.
“Certainly you don’t need two mayors, two CAOs, and whatever,” North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton tells The Outlook over the phone. “But you really have to look at it quite technically, department by department.”
When departments or entire municipalities are combined, staff salaries tend to harmonize at the highest wage bracket before the merger rather than at the lowest common denominator. Yet, cutting any eight of even the lowest earning department managers in either the city or the district would save taxpayers in excess of $1 million annually.
“The CAOs will say there’s no savings, but they’re in a bit of a conflict,” MacKay-Dunn says. “Not saying they’re wrong, but they’re in a conflict.”
For his part, Mussatto says savings can and are being made in the city already by streamlining staff, without recourse to amalgamation.
Municipal facilities are another area where the pro-amalgamation side purport to find savings by consolidating things like fire halls, libraries, works yards and civic offices. While the city and district already share major facilities like schools, recreation centres and a police building — more services, in fact, than any other two municipalities in the province, says Mussatto — a single North Vancouver municipal hall would save money in the long run but would first require a significant capital cost to build.
Mayor Walton says the logical place for a united municipal hall would be on the site of the current city hall. “It’s the heart of North Vancouver,” he says. Though, in his estimation, an amalgamated staff would require at least two to three times the space available in the current building, which is already under expansion.
Nevertheless, MacKay-Dunn says the capital costs to build new municipal buildings or expand on current ones could be recovered by selling off sites like the district hall on Queens Road.
And then there are the costs of jurisdictional inefficiencies — “horizontal job-loading” and “turf wars,” as MacKay-Dunn describes them. Inefficiencies like separate city and district garbage trucks — at $300,000 apiece — passing each other on the same stretch of 29th Street every Thursday morning, each picking up waste from one side of the street and not the other. The same goes too for snow removal along any of the handful of North Vancouver streets where the yellow median line marks the end of one municipality and the beginning of another.
Offering a final word on the issue, Mayor Walton says he remains wide open to discussing amalgamation but that ultimately, “it takes two.”
For his part, Mayor Mussatto says any amalgamation talk that doesn’t first require the district to dramatically increase its urban density is “a waste of time.”
And so, 105 years since their split, it seems that when talk turns to amalgamation among the two municipalities, the district’s still ready to talk roads, but the city still says sewers.