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BEHIND THE SCENES: Niagara's rural, urban municipalities at odds over amalgamation

Niagara-on-the-Lake Local's Mike Balsom takes us behind the scenes

In each “Behind the Scenes” segment, Village Media's Scott Sexsmith sits down with one of our local journalists to talk about the story behind the story.

These interviews are designed to help you better understand how our community-based reporters gather the information that lands in your local news feed. You can find more Behind the Scenes from reporter across Ontario here

Today's spotlight is on's Mike Balsom, whose story 'Niagara's rural, urban municipalities at odds over amalgamation' was published on Jan. 11.

 A seeming divide between Niagara's smaller rural municipalities and larger urban ones became evident during Wednesday’s open meeting with the Ontario government’s Standing Committee on Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy at the Holiday Inn in St. Catharines.

It was the first of several to be held across the province in the next two weeks.

During the afternoon session with the committee’s 10 members and Niagara’s four MPPs, both West Lincoln Mayor Cheryl Ganaan, Niagara-on-the-Lake Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa and Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop all questioned the need for any changes to the way their municipalities are governed. 

On the other hand, Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati and his St. Catharines counterpart Mat Siscoe both spoke passionately and urgently about their preference for the abolishment of regional council and the 12 current municipalities in favour of a four-city model for the region. 

Zalepa began his delegation by making four requests to the committee. 

“One is that we acknowledge, respect and protect the distinctiveness of our communities,” Zalepa listed. “Two, that we budget infrastructure funding for municipalities to achieve housing targets. Three, prioritize shared service funding for local municipalities so we can efficiently deliver services. And four, keep local decision-making at a local level.”

The lord mayor went on to boast of NOTL’s consistently high voter turnout and engaged local electorate and added that the part-time nature of NOTL council makes local politicians more accountable. 

“Our governance structure has created this rich heritage, distinctive community attributes and a proven, effective government,” said Zalepa. “We feel it must remain an independent municipality so we can maintain that important blend of cultural significance, economic vitality and community engagement, all of which is a testament to the success of local government.”

Similarly, Ganaan told the committee that her community, the 11th of the 12 municipalities population-wise with just over15,000 residents, would not support a change to one big city of Niagara.

“We are already working with other nearby municipalities,” Ganaan pointed out, speaking of recent moves to share some services with Lincoln and Grimsby. “We would support our existing model but would be open to some changes with improved service delivery.”

Much of Redekop’s delegation focused on housing and the need to build more homes faster in Niagara. 

“There seems to be a disconnect between rapidly approving the construction of new homes and the actual construction of those homes,” said the Fort Erie mayor. “Municipalities are responsible for receiving and processing applications for construction. It’s the builders and developers who are actually responsible for putting the shovels in the ground.”

With infrastructure demands often being the reason for that disconnect, Redekop insisted that his municipality of almost 33,000 residents has developed an asset management plan that has successfully addressed the issue. 

“I’m proud to say the Town of Fort Erie bridged what’s called the infrastructure gap in 2022,” said Redekop. “I don’t know if there are any other municipalities that have done that. No one else in Niagara has.”

Amalgamation, Redekop insisted, will not get homes built any faster.

Diodati made it clear from the outset that the status quo is not good enough for him. 

“This has been discussed for many decades,” he told the committee. “We’re hoping that we’re at a point now that we’re going to actually make some changes. At the Region we have 32 members. I wouldn’t call that good governance. It’s hard to make good decisions with too many cooks in the kitchen.”

With 13 governments, he pointed out, that means 13 sets of by-laws, 13 sets of rules and 13 CAOs. 

“That leads to overlap, duplication and red tape,” he summarized. “Time is money, and we use up too much time, which costs too much money. It’s hurting and impeding business. There’s a whole set of rules whenever you move to a new community.”

Diodati said he believed that one day Niagara will be one city, but that should be perhaps 50 years in the future. He stated his clear preference for the four-city model, which would allow for a better balance between rural and urban communities within the region. 

“It respects the uniqueness and the commonalities that we have between municipalities,” said Diodati. “I also believe that four cities is better than one because we will still have competition. Competition between municipalities is good. Two levels are too expensive. Four cities is the sweet spot.”

Similarly, Siscoe opined that multiple levels of bureaucracy in Niagara have resulted in systemic barriers which have been impeding growth. 

“In St. Catharines council voted unanimously in favour of our pledge to build 11,000 homes,” said Siscoe. “As we embarked on this process we have run into issues that have made continued progress difficult. Regional governance results in decisions and resources spread over a large area of 12 towns and cities with conflicting goals. This dilutes accountability for supporting housing.”

Siscoe’s opinion is that the four-city model, with the urban centres of St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland along with the more rural western municipalities as the fourth. 

“Creating four larger cities would make reform economically feasible,” Siscoe added, “and would allow for major efficiencies to be created that would allow our communities to focus on the priority that we share with the provincial government, to get more homes built faster.”

Earlier in the day the committee heard from the mayors of Welland, Thorold and Lincoln as well as Regional Chair Jim Bradley.

“It is important to learn from past experiences,” said the former Liberal MPP who spend who sat at Queen’s Park from 1977 until 2018. “Many long-term academic studies have demonstrated that the projected benefits of past amalgamations often failed to materialize, leading to the same outcomes if no changes had been made.”

“Once we start pulling at these threads,” warned Bradley, “the entire system may start to unravel.”

Pointing out that “no system is perfect”, Bradley suggested that rather than a full-on reform of governance, instead a series of incremental changes could strengthen Niagara while avoiding governance experiments that would be costly and distract from the region’s goals.

He suggested the creation of an approvals facilitator or provincial chief planner to expedite construction approvals, a streamlining of the Ontario Land Tribunal appeal process, and the introduction of more provincial incentive programs to encourage the private sector to build more purpose-built and affordable rentals.

Niagara’s opposition MPPs, Jeff Burch, Jenny Stevens and Wayne Gates, as well as PC MPP Sam Oosterhoff, were all in attendance and were given time to ask each speaker, who had exactly seven minutes to present, questions. 

“The smaller municipalities were very clear in their defence of their particular communities,” Gates told The Local Wednesday evening. “They don’t have a problem with sharing some services, but they want to have their own elected councils. Niagara-on-the-Lake is a wonderful town with its own character and challenges.”

Gates wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what will come of the meeting with the committee when the process comes to an end. And he added that when he is out in public people aren’t talking about the governance issue to him. 

“They tell me they can’t afford to buy groceries, their kids are living in their basements,” Gates said. “Our seniors are struggling to find places to live. There’s homelessness and refugees. That’s what people are talking to me about.”

Gates added that any talk of governance reform expediting the home building process is wishful thinking. 

“You’ll have a whole different set of rules that have to be put into place,” he said. “That’s not going to speed up the process. This particular meeting should have been about where we are at on housing. The (regional) chair said today Niagara has 39,000 housing units already approved for development. We need shovels in the ground. This should have been about helping us do that.”

And he said there’s one other misconception about any form of amalgamation. 

“All the studies say that it doesn’t save money, it doesn’t reduce your taxes," he said. “The other side is trying to say it will save us money. But the experts are clear that none of the other amalgamations across Ontario and in other provinces has saved any money. Why would it be any different in Niagara?”

Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa's prepared statement for the governance hearing:

Good Afternoon. My name is Gary Zalepa and I am appearing before the Committee on behalf of the Council of the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. I am here today to request the Committee and the Provincial government to consider four things:

1. Acknowledge, respect, and protect the distinctiveness of communities

2. Budget infrastructure funding for municipalities to achieve housing targets

3. Prioritize shared-services funding for local area municipalities to continue to explore options to efficiently deliver services to the community

4. Keep local decision-making authority at a local level to best serve the local community

Niagara-on-the-Lake Overview

We want to provide you a bit of information on Niagara-on-the-Lake in case you are not familiar with our community.

•Population of 19,000; expected growth to 29,000 by 2051
•From 2016 to 2021 the Town saw a population increase of 9%.
•NOTL is on track to meet the growth and housing forecasts set by the Region and Province.
•We have 5 distinct urban villages, joined by our agricultural community
•Niagara-on-the-Lake was the first capital of Upper Canada, established as the Town of Newark in 1792
•Niagara-on-the-Lake has a unique and cultural community distinction that has been evolved through local government for hundreds of years.

Niagara-on-the-Lake Governance Structure
The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, with its rich heritage, distinctive community attributes, and proven effective governance, must remain an independent municipality and can do so based on its local governance structure and financial strengths.
The unique blend of cultural significance, economic vitality, and community engagement is a testament to the success of our local government model, making it imperative to preserve our autonomy.

• Our governance structure is 9 members of Council (1 Lord Mayor and 8 Councillors) elected at-large.
•1 Regional Councillor is also elected at-large and they, along with the Lord Mayor, represent the Town on Regional Council
•Voter turnout in NOTL has been historically very high.
o In 2022 the Provincial turnout was 33%, and NOTL had a turnout of 48%.
o In 2018, the turnout was 58% and in 2014 it was 49%.

•The Deputy Lord Mayor was elected with nearly 5000 people voting for him based on a population of 19,000 – that is over 25%.

•The Regional Councillor was elected with 3100 people voting for her.

•The electorate of Niagara-on-the-Lake cares about who represents them at a local level. Local politicians in Niagara-on-the-Lake have other roles in the community. They work, volunteer, and live in Niagara-on-the-Lake. They are a part of the community, they contribute to the community, they care about the community. As a result, they are accountable. Whether it’s at the grocery store or at the local hardware store, Council members interact and are accountable to residents every single day.

The total salaries for the Niagara-on-the-Lake Council in 2023 is $182,000 – less than 0.4% of the Town’s budget. which Is well below the Ontario average salary for local politicians

The stewardship of 100+ years of local government is what has created, preserved, and modernized Niagara-on-the-Lake.

As a result of the governance structure in NOTL, local decisions are made about local resources by local people for the local community. I firmly believe, and ask the Province, to keep all decisions that affect municipalities be made as close as possible to the local community. We have seen great success with this model in NOTL.

Maintain Unique and Distinct Communities

Niagara-on-the-Lake has the perfect balance of heritage and culture, distinct landscapes and green space, and agriculture. These features are at the core of what makes NOTL a distinct community.

Niagara-on-the-Lake has a distinct agriculture community and includes protected lands, tender fruit, grapes, wine, and an irrigation system.

Distinct landscapes can be found in our agriculture lands, our award- winning gardens, stunning greenspace, and mostly surrounded by water.

We have a protected heritage conservation district and are home to several historic Parks Canada and Niagara Parks Commission sites.

The world-renowned Shaw Festival Theatre, in addition to a strong arts and culture community call Niagara-on-the-Lake home.

Niagara-on-the-Lake has worked hard to obtain municipal assets that fit the community. In addition to Town buildings, like the historic Courthouse in Old Town, some examples of unique assets include:

•NOTL Hydro

•Niagara District Airport

•Niagara Regional Broadband Network

•and our own irrigation system.
Other things that make Niagara-on-the-Lake unlike many of our neighbours are:

•A Volunteer Firefighter model with approximately 110 people.
•Policies to treats road surfacing differently by using a sand mixture
to ensure Niagara fruit lands are not damaged.
•Protected specialty crop lands protected through excellent policy
writing of the Greenbelt Act.
•A designated National Historic District, the first in Ontario in 2003.
Residents, business owners, and tourists alike come to Niagara-on-the- Lake to experience the agriculture landscape, interact with cultural heritage buildings, interplay with local stores, attend Shaw Festival plays, and be transported back in history visiting Parks Canada and Niagara Parks historical sites.

Financial Sustainability

Niagara-on-the-Lake is the third highest contributor of regional taxes within the Niagara Region, paying a combined $38.2M (2023) for various Regional Services.

In 2023 the Town funded its $10 million capital program 25% from taxes, 25% from rates, 27% from grants, and 22% from debt.

The Town’s Tax Asset Consumption Ratio at 37.6% shows that the majority of the Town’s assets are in “moderately” newer condition and is better than the Regional Average of 45.2%.

With a Financial Position per Capita of $1,391 per capita, shows that the Town is well positioned to provide and maintain service and infrastructure levels without resorting to unplanned increases in rates or cuts to services.

NOTL is aggressively closing the capital infrastructure gap. Changes to governance could dilute the hard work local government has done to invest in infrastructure and keep tax dollars low for our communities.

Local government has control of cost structures that best serve our local community. Local decisions made at a local level matter to the local community.

Municipal Modernization Funding
When the Province provides funding streams for municipalities, the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake seizes the opportunity.

The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake leveraged the Municipal Modernization Program funding to implement extraordinary changes that digitally transformed the Corporation, the customer experience journey, and demonstrated accountability of Council and Staff to residents.

I thank the Province for providing programs, like the Municipal Modernization program, and ask the Province to prioritize shared- services funding for local area municipalities to continue to explore options to efficiently deliver services to the community.

Shared Services

The Niagara Region has seen tremendous success in exploring opportunities to deliver services to the local community. We have seen victories already in this area, such as:

•Economic Development
•Climate Change
•Leverage Planning Services and Support between the Regional and lower-tier municipalities
•Coordinating Chief Building Officer approaches
And perhaps the most recent largest success is integrating multiple transit systems serving 12 municipalities into one.
NOTL demonstrates responsible and transparent governance by committing to strong fiscal management and exploring shared service opportunities.
I request the Province to prioritize shared-services funding for local area municipalities to continue to explore options to efficiently deliver services to the community.

Niagara-on-the-Lake: Economic Driver

Niagara-on-the-Lake is an economic driver for the Niagara Region, the Province of Ontario, and for the entire Nation of Canada.

Over 2 million people come to Niagara-on-the-Lake every year to experience the historic, well preserved Old Town, and enjoy our many tourist activities.

Niagara-on-the-Lake uniquely relies on the hospitality and tourism sector as an economic driver. Over 49% of all jobs are considered economic based jobs.

We are the leading producer of grapes in the Country (40%) and the Province (90%) and the leading procedure of tender fruit in the Country (50%).

We ask for your continued support for the tourism and hospitality sectors, and in particular, recognize the important links between cultural heritage and the Town's tourism economy.

NOTL is an economic driver for the Province. There is no instance in Ontario's history where municipal amalgamation has produced any financial savings. Drastic governance changes will result in a loss of identity and a loss in economic revenues, not just for NOTL but for the Province and the Country.

Requests for Consideration

As noted at the beginning of the presentation, I am before the Committee today to ask the consideration of four requests:

1. Acknowledge, respect, and protect the distinctiveness of communities

2.Budget infrastructure funding for municipalities to achieve housing targets
3.Prioritize shared-services funding for local area municipalities to continue to explore options to efficiently deliver services to the community
4.Keep local decision-making authority at a local level to best serve the local community
Niagara-on-the-Lake is an independent community, with strong financial health, that leverages shared services to be efficient and effective.

Continuing to explore shared services, with support from the Province, will ensure our unique, distinct, and historic community will continue to be an economic driver and meet the needs of local residents.