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North Van district and city still divided over amalgamation
The amalgamation battle lines between North Vancouver city and district have been drawn.
A motion made by Coun. Doug MacKay-Dunn in the district to strike an independent committee to study the cost benefits of sewing together the entire North Shore passed 4-3 on Monday night.
Meanwhile, North Van City Coun. Guy Heywood stopped by the district’s council meeting to make a recommendation of his own: That both North Van municipalities ask the provincial government for guidance and to help fund the cost of undertaking a restructuring feasibility study.
District Coun. Alan Nixon endorsed Heywood’s suggestion and made it into a motion that passed unanimously.
For MacKay-Dunn, the crux of the amalgamation debate is ensuring the North Shore municipalities are operating in an efficient and economical manner.
Using traffic congestion as an example of a shared concern that could be mitigated by combining forces, MacKay-Dunn said an integrated planning function amongst the North Shore communities is needed to help solve the problem.
He also imagines recreational services, which are already combined in the North Vans, extended to all North Shore residents.
“The swimmers want a 50-metre pool. If you want one, amalgamate — because that’s the only way you going to get it,” said MacKay-Dunn.
He originally crafted the unification motion close to three years ago, but says he held back while the district and city explored shared services opportunities.
“We have not made as much progress as I would have hoped,” said MacKay-Dunn.
Heywood doesn’t want to drag West Vancouver into amalgamation discussions, but rather “focus on what is doable.”
He points to the wide gulf in policing costs as a potential sticking point for West Van, where there is a municipal-run police department.
Last year in West Van, $13.7 million was allocated for policing services for roughly 43,000 residents, while in North Van district — where there’s a population of approximately 84,000 — the police budget was $15.7 million.
“In West Van, the police force is a very expensive one, and it’s there to protect property,” said Heywood. “You have a community that places a higher value on crime control.”
Nixon shares Heywood’s sentiments on not including West Van in the amalgamation examination. He believes it’s prudent to look at the most likely outcome as the municipalities go down this path.
“And quite frankly I don’t ever see the District of West Vancouver opting to join into an amalgamation of the two North Vancouvers into a North Shore,” Nixon told council. “It would be, with no disrespect intended on any party, like trying to mix oil and water. I just don’t see it happening.”
West Van Mayor Michael Smith offered his opinion on the subject to The Outlook on Monday.
“I think it makes good sense for North Van to amalgamate,” said Smith. “As far as amalgamation with North Van and West Van, I don’t think our citizens would support that.”
However, Smith is in favour of looking for specific efficiencies through shared services with the North Van municipalities.
“Police and fire services are certainly an area that could be looked at,” said Smith.
His ultimate amalgamation fear is that West Van would lose its identity “that’s been 100 years in the making” — along with control over density and growth.
North Van city Mayor Darrell Mussatto is quite adamant that he is against amalgamation. While he has not seen either of the motions, he already knows how he would vote if they were to come before city council.
“I can’t speak for council, but I would not be supporting that,” said Mussatto, who would rather see North Van city and district concentrate on enhancing their shared services agreements.
“We share more services with the district than any other two municipalities in British Columbia,” said Mussatto, referencing cross-jurisdictional agreements in areas such as policing, recreation, arts and culture and emergency planning.
He added, amalgamating with the district would render the city vulnerable to a tax burden.
“We are very financially stable, the city. We have no debt,” said Mussatto.
North Van Mayor Richard Walton told council amalgamation is a non-issue for the district.
“We would like to begin discussions tomorrow,” said Walton. “But up to this point the city hasn’t expressed an interest to do so.”
Walton cautioned, the amalgamation initiative has to come from city council or the residents, otherwise the district’s actions might be seen as “disrespectful and threatening.”
The independent committee tasked with the amalgamation study would have community representatives from across the North Shore as members.
“I can think of some people who live on the North Shore who are knowledgable with corporate history,” said MacKay-Dunn.
The group would report their findings to council no later than Sept. 8. That’s the deadline that has been set for a referendum question, such as amalgamation, to be included in the municipal election this November.
District Coun. Roger Bassam, who along with Muri and Nixon voted against the motion that called for an amalgamation committee, said it’s unrealistic to expect that such a weighted question could be on the next election ballot.
“I think this is a very large project that has to be done in a very detailed manner and take as much time as is required to get it done correctly,” said Bassam.
Meanwhile, Heywood, who is not seeking re-election, is confident his motion will be approved by city council. Overseen and paid for in part by the provincial government, the study would take an objective look at the fiscal implications of restructuring the two municipalities.
“If we want to talk about improving local government in North Vancouver — both quantitatively in terms of perhaps being more efficient, but also being more effective — the end result may not be amalgamation …” said Heywood.
Heywood said his concern with tasking “volunteers” to form an amalgamation committee is that they are not experts.
“This isn’t their day job,” said Heywood.
The restructuring study program, under the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Affairs, would include a comprehensive audit of both municipalities’ finances.
The city and district could apply for a $40,000 grant to help cover the cost of the study. Heywood figures that money could buy some basic research.
A lay governor on the Board of the Certified General Accountants of B.C., Heywood wants the audited statements of the two municipalities — which he says contain some reporting differences — to be presented through the ministry in a standardized format.
“The point is the province is an independent third party,” said Heywood.
The restructuring study could also factor in potential changes to political representation.
Heywood envisions a ward system, similar to the way the North Vancouver Board of Education operates now, where there is equal representation from the city and district.