MetroVisions: Toronto stumbling six years after huge mergers

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TORONTO -- Recognized worldwide for its commerce and culture, this city on the northern shore of Lake Ontario began 1997 with a population of more than 650,000, nearly twice the size of present-day Pittsburgh.

   
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But that wasn't nearly big enough to suit the Conservatives governing the province of Ontario at the time.

Toronto, home to gleaming office towers and Broadway-style theaters, entered 1998 with a population of 2.4 million, nearly four times as many people as the year before.

In a display of unbridled power, the Conservative Party government that controlled the provincial parliament had adopted legislation merging Toronto and five of its suburbs, two of which had populations of more than half a million themselves.

The legislation -- hailed as ambitious by some, reviled as tyrannical by others -- created the fifth-largest city in North America when it went into effect the following New Year's Day.

But the new super-sized Toronto has stumbled through its first six years, beset with labor strife, political conflict and scandal.

The story of the Toronto "amalgamation" -- as Canadians call it -- can serve as a cautionary tale for Pittsburgh or any other city considering a government merger.

"We had chaos for six years," said David Miller, Toronto's mayor since December. "Now we're finally starting to stabilize an effective government."

Voters ignored

The Toronto amalgamation was a shotgun wedding.

A majority of voters in all six municipalities opposed the merger in a nonbinding referendum and thousands of citizens participated in marches and rallies to protest the plan of the Conservative, or Tory, Party. Then-Premier Mike Harris plowed ahead anyway, insisting that the amalgamation would save millions of tax dollars by eliminating government duplication.

"We got kicked in the shins every day for months about how we were destroying local government," recalled John Matheson, who was the chief of staff for Harris' municipal affairs minister at the time.

Consciously or not, the Harris government was following a recipe written in Winnipeg more than 25 years earlier, when the Manitoba provincial government merged its capital city with 11 suburbs.

But the Winnipeg and Toronto amalgamations sprang from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Winnipeg was merged by a socialist government that sought to equalize tax rates and service levels across an entire metropolitan area.

Toronto, on the other hand, was merged by a right-wing government that sought to reduce the numbers of elected officials and government employees.

It is widely believed that Harris had another objective, as well: shifting control of Toronto's government from left-leaning inner-city politicians to conservative-minded suburbanites.

David Crombie, one of Toronto's most revered former mayors and a Conservative Party member himself, said the Harris-led Tories "wanted to kick the heck out of the old city."

Miller, a member of Canada's left-of-center New Democratic Party, subscribes to a similar view. "The amalgamation happened because of a dispute between a moderately left-wing city government and a radical right-wing provincial government," the mayor said.

Such a conflict might have a familiar ring to people in southwestern Pennsylvania, where conservative-minded suburbanites have criticized the spending habits of the Democrat-controlled Pittsburgh city government.

But Toronto Blue Jays President Paul Godfrey, a Conservative insider, denies that his party was trying to undercut the lefties who were running the city.

"If that were the case, it was surely a short-lived thing, because [Miller] is a very liberal-thinking mayor. In fact, he's a socialist mayor," Godfrey said.

Megacity fast-tracked

While the Harris regime's underlying motivations might remain unclear, there is no mistaking the fact that the premier was in a hurry to get the amalgamation done.

The bill consolidating Toronto with its suburbs won approval in the Ontario Legislature on April 21, 1997, and went into effect barely eight months later. A six-member transition team had just over half a year to coordinate the merger.

In other words, not nearly long enough.

Mel Lastman, a colorful suburban politician, took office as the megacity's first mayor in January 1998, only to be greeted with such mind-numbing challenges as consolidating 56 union contracts into six.

"It was just overwhelming for everybody," said Sue-Ann Levy, a City Hall columnist with the Toronto Sun. "It was an unholy mess."

The low point in labor relations occurred in the summer of 2002, when garbage workers went on strike.

"The city was a big hot stinking mess," said Andrea Addario, Miller's spokeswoman.

Linking the disparate computer systems of the six former municipalities led to problems, too.

In 1999, the city council approved $32 million in leases of new computer equipment, only to see the cost balloon to $61 million in a tangled scandal that is still being investigated.

Almost as difficult as merging union contracts and computer networks has been harmonizing six different sets of laws and six different standards of service.

"It was hell, because you couldn't satisfy anybody," said Lastman, the former mayor.

Prior to the amalgamation, public employees in the suburban municipality of North York cleared snow from residential sidewalks, while their counterparts in Etobicoke collected piles of unbagged leaves.

Even though North York and Etobicoke no longer exist as independent municipalities, Toronto council members from those areas have fought to preserve such extra services -- for their constituents alone.

"Not everybody wants harmonization," said Lastman.

Parochialism persists

Many of the 44 council members have focused narrowly on their districts, rather than on the city as a whole, complained Paul Sutherland, a Toronto council member from 2000 to 2003.

"You actually had a majority of council members who didn't want their own city," he said. "There was always this undercurrent of, 'I didn't want this stupid government.' "

Such a member was Michael Prue, an Ontario legislator who served on the megacity council for five years. Prue, who earlier had served as mayor of East York, said his constituents feel distanced from the new city government.

"The general public has very little opportunity for input," he said. "The bureaucrats are firmly in control."

From the outset of the amalgamation, it seemed the megacity was too mammoth to administer from one central location. In 2001, the city bureaucracy split into four zones: east, west, north and south.

The council members from each zone convene monthly in satellite locations to consider neighborhood planning and traffic issues, then make recommendations to the full council.

But the zone system has its pitfalls.

With a separate bureaucracy in each of the four quadrants, "You can have four different people trying to interpret council policy in four different ways," said Dominic Gulli, manager of traffic operations for the west zone.

Some government services have clearly suffered since the amalgamation, most visibly the clean-up of litter and the maintenance of public spaces.

Toronto Councilman Doug Holyday frowned one afternoon this summer as he approached the old Etobicoke City Hall, where he once presided as mayor, but which now houses Toronto's west zone bureaucracy.

"This used to be a lovely lawn," Holyday said as he approached the front entrance, motioning toward patches of dead grass. "It looks like crap now."

Payroll, expenses rise

Still, if the new city had saved money, it would have met the Conservatives' criteria for success -- and would provide a model for financially distressed Pittsburgh.

The Harris government initially predicted that the amalgamation would save $300 million a year by eliminating duplication in personnel and services. Then the projection was revised downward to $240 million, then to $150 million.

As the megacity approaches its seventh birthday, it is hard to tell whether the amalgamation has saved any money at all.

In a recently released report, city Chief Administrative Officer Shirley Hoy documented that amalgamated departments -- such as fire, health and economic development -- have shed 1,104 employees since 1998. However, the overall payroll has swelled by 1,646 positions during the first 6 1/2 years of the merger, she found. Over the same period, the city's operating budget has grown from $4.2 billion to $4.9 billion.

The growth in expenses and payrolls has occurred primarily in previously merged programs -- such as police, public transit, and courts -- which were handled by a county-like Metro government before 1998.

Financial analyses of the amalgamation are further clouded by the fact that the Harris government shifted several of the province's responsibilities to the city, forcing Toronto to absorb and hire workers for a variety of social service programs.

The downloading of responsibilities infuriated Lastman, who as mayor-elect accused Harris of "cutting the heart out of the city."

Godfrey, the Conservative Party insider, does not deny that the province burdened the city with new expenses, but he faults Toronto's mayors and council members for allowing the payroll to bulge.

"When two companies in private enterprise merge together, there is usually a savings in staff costs," Godfrey said. "For some reason, when cities are amalgamated, some politicians are afraid to downsize staffing."

Matheson, the former Harris government official, argues that another 10 years must pass before the amalgamation can be fairly evaluated.

"If you're going to amalgamate, don't be too fussed about judging the success in year two," he said.

Born in the '50s

While no one can deny that the Harris government acted decisively in merging Toronto, the amalgamation also can be seen as the culmination of a 45-year evolutionary process.

It began in 1953, when the province created Metro, a county-like government whose borders matched those of the new megacity. Metro was more muscular than the Allegheny County government, providing all of the policing, from patrols to investigations, for its member municipalities.

In 1967, amalgamation advanced again, when the province merged 13 municipalities into the six that existed until 1998.

The Metro government was then consolidated with the six municipalities in the ultimate amalgamation.

Godfrey, himself a former Metro chairman, believes that Pittsburgh should embark on a similar evolutionary course of merging suburbs and enlarging county government.

"If you took 130 [municipalities] down to 15 or 20 as a first step, that would be good," he said. "One-hundred-thirty municipalities in one geographic area is ridiculous."

If Pittsburgh eventually pulled off a Toronto-style amalgamation of all the municipalities in Allegheny County, the new city would have a population of nearly 1.3 million, which would make it the seventh largest in the nation.

About one of every 10 Pennsylvanians would live in Pittsburgh.

Toronto these days is home to about one out of every 12 Canadians.

Budgets have increased, payrolls have swelled, and grass has died.

But amalgamation has given Toronto the type of power and presence that Pittsburgh can only envy -- and which Miller hopes to parley into increased federal funding for public transit, affordable housing and waterfront revitalization in his city.

"If we can use this political influence correctly, it will produce enormous benefits for the city of Toronto," the mayor said.

And produce a happy ending to what has been a cautionary tale.

Tomorrow: Hamilton, Pittsburgh's "sister city."


Jeffrey Cohan can be reached at jcohan@post-gazette.com and at 412-263-3573.


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