Tripling Toronto's Size to 'Megacity' May Save Cash, but Irks Residents

When Jack Diamond considers the plan to expand Toronto into a "megacity," he shudders.

For him, the fight for the future of Toronto, Canada's largest city, hit home a couple of weeks ago when the plan was announced. Under the plan, the population of Toronto will expand threefold to 2.3 million people by eliminating five neighboring cities and welding them all together.

Ontario Premier Michael Harris says the radical move is necessary to eliminate a layer of government and duplication of services. Combining the cities, he says, will save millions of dollars.

But the plan has municipal officials and residents of Toronto and its the neighboring cities fuming. They decry the move as an antidemocratic boondoggle aimed at silencing critics of Mr. Harris's government. It is also unlikely to cut costs and may actually cost more, embattled city officials and residents say.

Like many Torontonians, Mr. Diamond, an architect, has begun pitching very un-Canadian ideas like tax revolt. His aim: Stop Harris from cutting the cost of local government by simply eliminating it. "I think what we need in Toronto is another Boston Tea Party," he says. "No taxation without representation."

Today Toronto has 629,000 people living within 37 square miles. But under Harris's plan, announced Dec. 17, Toronto would more than triple its former population on 239 square miles - yet with far fewer elected officials. Instead of having 104 elected representatives and six municipal governments, there would be 44 councilors presiding over just one city hall.

Destined for the scrap heap would be the customized public services, city governments, and the identities of five cities: Scarborough, Etobicoke, East York, York, and North York. Although not household names outside Canada, some of these cities are among the nation's largest.

Residents of the six cities also worry about property values, rising taxes, and services as part of a new megalopolis. Polls show 75 percent of residents want a referendum. All six mayors (whose jobs would be axed) say a vote is needed to ratify such massive change.

"I think megacity automatically means mega-bureaucracy," Toronto Mayor Barbara Hall, said last month. She and the City Council voted to spend C$1 million (US$730,000) to hold a referendum that asked the question: "Are you in favor of Toronto being amalgamated into a megacity?"

But Harris, who campaigned in 1995 on the idea of holding referendums on key issues, now says that such a referendum would be a waste because he would not heed the result.

The Harris government is no stranger to controversy. In its pursuit of a balanced budget and income-tax cuts, it has chopped welfare payments, health care, and unemployment insurance funding. As with these other projects, the government's eye this time is purportedly on the bottom line. A government report claims $219 million in savings from the amalgamation. But critics say $146 million of the savings are speculative and unrelated to cutting duplication.

Among those skeptical of financial savings is Andrew Sancton, at the University of Western Ontario in London. His analysis of the report - done on behalf of the city of Toronto - shows there may not be any savings at all.

But if the plan won't save much money, why bother? What's driving it? Business groups like the Toronto Board of Trade support the move. They say it will raise Toronto's profile on the world stage and attract investment. Others say business groups and developers support the plan because they just don't like hassling with different zoning and other regulations.

"This government has wanted to reduce overlap and duplication from the start," explains Jim Murphy, a senior adviser to the province's Municipal Affairs Minister Al Leach, who designed the plan. "Most people think they are overgoverned and that there are too many politicians. We want to fix that."

But Sylvia Bashevkin, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, says there is something else driving the plan: an opportunity to rout the opposition. With no real opponents in the provincial parliament, Harris's toughest battles have been with Toronto's mayor and other mayors, unions, and welfare and other urban groups. "If your opposition comes from one particular urban area, you can silence and de-fund the opposition," Ms. Bashevkin points out.

"Look, this whole idea that there will be huge cost savings is a myth," says Frank Faubert, Scarborough's mayor. "Harris has no legal basis for any of this. If he is right, then he'll have to prove it in the courts." Mr. Faubert says a legal fight is brewing and Scarborough, Toronto, and East York may be joined by other cities.

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