Niagara-on-the-Lake town councillors and senior staff are about to organize a game plan to share the town's position on the possibility of amalgamation. As the province’s plans for merging regions like Niagara into one municipality move forward, a standing committee overseen by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing will begin receiving input from local governments in the new year.
The committee will be in St. Catharines on Jan. 10 and Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa told The Local the town will be taking part in those meetings.
But the deadline to apply is Jan. 3, which means action needs to be taken soon so he and his fellow councillors can decide what they want to say on behalf of the town, he told The Local.
“It would be a special meeting for councillors to put their ideas and thoughts forward,” he said, adding that a date has yet to be set.
Consensus around the council chamber would be expressed in a report and a presentation to take to the provincial committee, Zalepa explained.
“We would be developing the presentation with the help of the senior management team,” he added, also noting he plans to take the lead on its delivery.
In the past, Zalepa has expressed the opinion that stripping villages, towns and cities of their identities is not a measure to be taken.
He has suggested that shared services, such as what the town and region recently agreed on with certain planning duties, is the best way to save money.
He seems confident the majority of NOTL councillors have similar thoughts.
“That position — I’ve kind of developed in conversations with council members over the past year,” he said, adding he believes most councillors are “comfortable in that space,” and that what is presented to the province in January will likely be of that nature.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the flavour of it,” he said.
In September, Zalepa told The Local he doesn’t feel “single amalgamation” is the best approach when compared to continuing the exploration of shared services and modernizing government.
He believes decision-making needs to stay at the local level.
He also said there are some departments that can be handled in collaboration, but recognizes “there are some things we need to do separately.”
Zalepa also likes that municipal councillors in Niagara’s towns and cities, and at the regional level, are part-time.
It’s important that many have jobs locally in both the private and public sector, he said, and have a pulse on doing business, crunching budgets, and involved in the local economy.
He said he’s open to a conversation about trimming the number of politicians in the region, but added it’s “not a recipe to reduce costs.”
As discussions about amalgamation return to the forefront, Zalepa admitted “we could’ve done more when the pressure was put on in 2018,” but said things sort of “fell to the wayside” due to the pandemic.