A quartet of former Comox Valley mayors are calling on the Province to amalgamate the three local municipalities and a large area of the regional district.
Former Cumberland mayors Fred Bates and Bronco Moncrief, and former Courtenay mayors Ron Webber and Greg Phelps want immediate action rather than more study.
“The timing is perfect,” says Bates, noting amalgamation would make the Valley the third-largest Island municipality. “If the Province led the amalgamation process starting immediately, we could go to the polls next November and elect the first truly regional government for the area.”
The mayors envision an elected body comprised of three Courtenay councillors, two from Comox, one from Cumberland, one from areas of the CVRD and two at-large councillors. The mayor would be elected at large or by the entire Valley.
“Their primary role would be to transition into one larger, more effective group,” Phelps said. “This would take special skills as well as people who are big-picture thinkers. It’s just common sense.”
Bates says Moncrief, who is dealing with health issues, fought for years to keep Cumberland separate. Recently, however, he has realized the only way for the village to thrive is to become part of a larger entity.
“He came to recognize that it doesn’t make sense to have all three municipalities as well as the CVRD going hat in hand to Victoria and Ottawa for various grants when one stronger voice would be heeded,” said Bates, who claims there is little opposition because most people feel there is too much government in the Valley.
The three current mayors have a different take on the issue. For one thing, says Comox Mayor Paul Ives, the Community Charter does not allow for mandated amalgamation.
“Unless the Province is going to change its legislation, it’s something that’s going to require more of a consensus-based approach,” he said. “At this point, to ask the Province to essentially legislate a shotgun wedding I don’t think is a wise move.”
Ives recalls amalgamation was voted down in 1999. Courtenay was in favour while Comox was against, as were outlying areas. Cumberland was not part of it at the time.
Ives said the former mayors’ idea does not include a business-case analysis, which he feels is necessary because amalgamation would create issues for Comox, such as increased policing costs.
“That hit alone would be huge to residents,” said Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird, noting the Village does not pay for policing while Comox pays 70 per cent of local policing costs.
Phelps suggests a Valley-wide approach could spread the cost evenly and fairly.
“Amalgamation made sense 20 years ago and it makes a lot more sense today,” he said.
“There’s nothing imminent about it for us,” countered Ives, noting Comox is several years from reaching a population threshold of 15,000, at which time the town would pay 90 per cent of policing costs. “We have to be careful what we wish for sometimes.”
Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula supports the principal of less government. He agrees one or perhaps two levels of local government would ring louder with senior governments, but says the big question is how and when that comes to pass.
“I also don’t think that ramming it down people’s throats with no discussion is going to solve anything,” Jangula said. “What it’s going to do is cause a lot of anger and a lot of resentment.”
He suggests a future possibility might be one central municipality and a district municipality.
“I think the public has to buy into this; that’s the bottom line,” Jangula said.
Bates says there are positives that need to be explored such as protecting the environment. With amalgamation, he said the Valley could have one water system and one city hall.
“It is time to work together and rationalize all of our services. We don’t need separate fire departments, public works, planning and many others.”
Ives questions if Comox would end up with a full-time fire department. Each municipality, he notes, has a volunteer department with a few full-time paid staffers.
“I would venture to guess it may be difficult to retain volunteers if you had a Comox Valley-wide fire department,” Ives said. “That cost is quite significant.
“It doesn’t mean we can’t work together,” he added, noting shared services such as water and sewer.