Monday, November 7, 2011

North Shore candidates shy from A-word

North Shore candidates shy from A-word

While civic candidates on the North Shore aren't too keen to discuss amalgamation, many are talking about integrating fire services between the three municipalities.

While civic candidates on the North Shore aren't too keen to discuss amalgamation, many are talking about integrating fire services between the three municipalities.

Photograph by: North Shore News , file photo

Amalgamation is once again a hot-button issue in this year's municipal election campaign, but the A-word is still a touchy subject for many politicians.

Instead, better integration between the North Shore's three fire departments seems to be the topic candidates actually want to talk about. With the city and district of North Vancouver already sharing recreation services, policing and other big-ticket items, many council candidates say a single fire department is the next logical step.
Several councillors and hopefuls in the two North Vancouvers say they plan to move this forward in the next term, and the newly mayor-acclaimed of West Vancouver is also taking the issue seriously.

"As mayor, I intend to move it forward aggressively. I hope that the two North Vans pick up on it," said Michael Smith, who got the job as mayor of West Vancouver when nobody challenged him.

The appetite is there at the District of North Vancouver as well, according Coun. Michael Little. He said councils have done all they can to cut costs without cutting services in-house, and joining forces is the best option left.

"The next place we need to look is more serious efforts to share services with other groups, particularly, hopefully, with the City of North Vancouver," he said.

At the city, several council hopefuls, including Guy Heywood, said much the same thing, noting the two fire chiefs are even related.

"We now have a brother act in charge of the two fire departments, so what better time?" he said.

The city and district already move their crews around the North Shore to cover for each other when one fire station is emptied due to a call, as well as coordinating on other aspects, but supporters say major savings could be achieved through combining training, procurement and management structures, which would include fewer top-level staff.

Still, Kevin Macauley, a former district of North Vancouver fire captain who's now running for council in the district, said the savings would likely be minimal.

He said there could be long-term benefit, though, in terms of efficiency and less frequent cost increases.

"You don't save a lot of money in the initial part, but over time you would be more efficient in what you have, and you would have a cost saving in how you spend the money," he said, drawing from studies he was a part of as captain. Still, he said it will be a tough process, and one that needs to be undertaken carefully and with the support of the firefighters themselves.

Candidates pointed to numerous other services that might be combined as well, from horticulture departments to snow plows.

On the topic of amalgamating municipalities, however, City of North Vancouver politicians were quick to douse that fire. Former district mayor Don Bell, who is running for council in the city this time, was among them.

There is "a fear of loss of identity, community identity, and also the fear of the potential for increased taxes," he said. 

"Where there has been amalgamations with other major Canadian cities - I'm thinking Winnipeg, Toronto, Halifax - the material I've read (says) the planned savings . . . didn't actually occur."

In the case of Montreal, several former municipalities have gone through de-amalgamation, reviving their old towns from the dead.

George Pringle, however, a candidate for North Vancouver city mayor, is pushing the issue. "We're not getting savings until we address amalgamation," he said, adding would hold a referendum on the subject.

In the district, however, amalgamation has long been the desire of council and that hasn't changed this year.
Incumbent councillor Lisa Muri is one in favour of full amalgamation, arguing the issue needed to be jointly studied.

"You would reduce two municipal managers. You're probably saving there $250,000. Then you do directors of planning, directors of engineering; all your senior management team is basically cut in half," she said, but even she acknowledged that it's a difficult sell.

Macauley was even less optimistic.
"If it hasn't happened in the last 30 years it's not going to happen now, unless there's a mandate from the province or all a sudden two municipalities wake up."
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