My Take on Suggested Amalgamation of Firefighting and Emergency Services on the Saanich Peninsula

First term Central Saanich Councillor and realtor Ron Kubek recently called for amalgamation of fire protection and emergency services on the Saanich Peninsula. He suggests discussions begin soon between Central Saanich, North Saanich, Sidney and the Victoria Airport Authority to explore the cost benefits of an amalgamated model. He argues that such a model can save money. On the face of it, his suggestion sounds logical. Who doesn't want to save money these days?

But what concerns me most about Mr. Kubek's comments is his description of Peninsula residents and taxpayers as "customers." Yes, residents certainly are taxpayers, but they can hardly be described as "customers" when it comes to the provision of fire and emergency services. Our residents and taxpayers don't "shop" these services, looking for big sales and great deals. Service delivery is not about competition and price-cutting but about competence and protecting lives and property. Merely applying a business model to such vital community services is, in my opinion, ill-informed and unwise.

Believe me, when faced with a traumatic incident such as a house fire or emergency where lives are potentially at risk, a resident in distress is not going to stop to ask, "What does this cost?" I speak with some authority given that we suffered a major house fire in 1998 and if it had not been for the very quick and effective response of North Saanich volunteer firefighters, we would have lost the house. So when Mr. Kubek states, "Let's get real..." I say that there are some very "real" issues we must consider in any discussion about possible changes to fire protection and emergency services.

It's true that other jurisdictions have bought into the simplicity of Mr. Kubek's argument and jumped on the amalgamation bandwagon, only to later learn that results were more costly and did not provide better, more efficient service delivery. My understanding of the "real" story is that communities, especially smaller ones, can end up paying more for less and, because services and decision-making are centralized, a larger organization can be less flexible and responsive to local needs and concerns, particularly at the neighbourhood level.

Toronto, Halifax and Hamilton are just a few of the Canadian cities that have amalgamated and now realize that there is no panacea to bigger centralized local government or consolidation of services. In September 2008, Blake Hutcheson, Chair of Toronto's Independent Fiscal Review Panel, said during an interview that "...It's been 10 years since amalgamation. We now have 44 have huge, fractious decision-making. Clearly, when we set out with amalgamation as a province and a city, there were all kinds of hopes that we could get greater efficiencies, reduce our real estate, reduce our municipal staff, etc. The fact is we've added 4,000 jobs, we have not sold off any of the major real estate assets that anchored the once great cities, and we haven't been able to progress and gain the efficiencies that were promised..."

In a recent newspaper interview, North Saanich Fire Chief Gary Wilton points out that an amalgamated or consolidated model for the Peninsula will not save money or substantially improve service delivery. There appears to be some truth to Chief Wilton's observations. Closer to home, I understand that amalgamation or consolidation specific to fire and police services in Esquimalt is posing real challenges to the town's budget and service delivery -- Esquimalt is learning that amalgamation has brought with it escalating costs and less control.

North Saanich has been fortunate to have a volunteer firefighting and emergency services' model that focuses on high level training and competence. This was confirmed by a 2007 Ipsos-Reid survey of North Saanich residents where they ranked their satisfaction with our local firefighting and emergency services higher than for any other category, making it clear that they feel well protected and well served. Our North Saanich firefighters are uniquely all volunteer but no less professional, effective and respected.

"Real" differences also exist between fire protection and emergency service providers on the Saanich Peninsula. For example, Sidney and Central Saanich have forces combined of both volunteers and paid unionized staff, which introduces a new and complicated dynamic that increases costs for labour relations and union contract administration, in addition to salary costs (contract wage settlements for firefighters in the CRD have historically been some of the highest among unionized employees). The Victoria Airport Authority is located on federal land and is therefore a separate entity with a different mandate.

Recent cost comparisons for firehall improvements and upgrades also reveal differences -- Central Saanich and the airport have budgeted multi-millions while North Saanich will spend only a little over $2M for a new firehall addition. North Saanich also enjoys the lowest residential property tax rate on the Saanich Peninsula and one of the lowest in the region. What do you think might happen to North Saanich taxes if we amalgamated fire and emergency services with the rest of the Peninsula?

Despite these differences, it's well known that there is a strong history of mutual cooperation and collaboration between Central Saanich, North Saanich, Sidney and Victoria Airport Authority firefighters in a number of key areas such as training and professional development, emergency planning and coordination and in response to major regional emergencies.

Before exploring the suggestion of consolidating firefighting and emergency services on the Saanich Peninsula, we need to listen to our North Saanich residents and consult widely with our firefighting professionals. After all, I will place no price tag on health and safety if I believe that these very "real" priorities could in any way be compromised by consolidation or amalgamation.

Stay tuned.