No group hug likely

(United Counties Warden Dave Gordon speaks at Brockville's New Year's Day levee. Photo by Darcy Cheek)

Eighteen months ago, North Grenville Mayor Dave Gordon's suggestion Brockville join the United Counties was a political grenade.

At the time, Gordon was cheekily suggesting Brockville and the other separated municipalities (Prescott and Gananoque) join the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville before he take seriously any talk of regional economic development.

It turns out a grenade wasn't needed to stop regional ecodev: months and months of delay, driven in Brockville's part by other priorities (or dare I say otter priorities) have done the job so far.

And now it turns out tossing suggestions of regional “union,” “cooperation,” integration and perhaps even that unspoken A-word “amalgamation” may not be the grenade it once was.

It didn't seem that way at Brockville's New Year's Day levee, when Gordon, newly installed as the warden of the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville, began talking of “closer” ties between the county level and the other municipalities.

Mayor David Henderson responded, as you can see, with a comic bear hug, but a subsequent interview revealed there was, in fact, no tension for him to defuse.

Henderson considers himself a proponent of a more regionalized local government. He is also a realist, noting regional amalgamation, integration, cooperation – whatever you wish to call it – will be a long process.

More intriguingly, Henderson points to economic circumstances that may force this kind of integration over the short or long term.

Just like the austerity of the Mike Harris years forced a wave of amalgamations that brought us North Grenville and many other larger townships, so the current provincial government's fiscal woes might force even further integration.

The mayor points to a shrinking provincial transfer payment, known as the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF), as the main pressure likely to force smaller, rural municipalities to seek fiscal shelter in larger unions.

His observation, however, might in fact concern a broader shift in the economic reality, a shift driven by efforts to pull this province out of have-not status, a shift that will be driven by the kinds of catastrophic cuts to municipal funding Gordon has warned about before.

If such larger forces end up driving the process in 2015, regional integration could end up happening a lot faster than Henderson predicts.

The odds are that comic bear hug would not be followed by a group hug and, to use one of the warden's favourite expressions, a singing of 'Kumbaya.'