Montreal is 21st among 29 cities in Canada in Maclean’s survey

One thing Mayor Gérald Tremblay does not need with an election barely more than three months away is a new rating of cities according to how well they are run. Too bad for him that Maclean’s magazine this week surveys 29 Canadian cities and ranks Montreal in the last third – a dismal 21st.

The other members of Canada’s Big Four cities leave Montreal in the dust: Vancouver is third, Toronto 10th and Calgary 11th. Montreal fares poorly even when stacked up against the province’s other cities: Longueuil proudly claims the 5th spot, followed by Sherbrooke (6), Quebec City (9) and Gatineau (12). (Laval did not provide enough data for the study to include it.)

The Tremblay administration dismisses the results, noting that a poll it commissioned in June suggests that 78 per cent of Montrealers are satisfied with services. But Maclean’s study is unusually rigourous. No one can argue that its evaluation is unfair.

For one thing, the reputable think tank that the magazine hired to do the research, the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, compared the cities according to no fewer than 70 criteria; these range from the tax burden to the share of the labour force commuting on public transit. The data also covers not one year but three (2005-2007), thereby avoiding flukey results that can come from an exceptional year. As well, the study takes a city’s particular context into account: Montreal’s big snow-clearing bill is thus not held against it.

The other reason to take this harsh evaluation seriously is that it is consistent with other comparisons of cities’ liveability:

The Conference Board of Canada in 2007 ranked 27 Canadian cities for “attractiveness” to newcomers, a measure whose many criteria included economic health, physicians per capita, and gender income differences. Montreal was No. 14, trailing Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver, which finished 1-2-3.

The Economist this year screened 140 cities around the world on such things as stability, infrastructure, health care, education and culture. Montrealers can take heart their city excels when measured against cities on other continents, but the problem is with the Canadian competition. Montreal (No.17) lags far behind Vancouver (1), Toronto (4) and Calgary (5).

The upscale U.S. magazine Monocle, which in 2007 had rated Montreal’s quality of life l2th in the world (“A laid-back bilingual city where the good life comes at a bargain price”), this week demoted us to 19th.

Maclean’s website offers useful details that its cover story does not mention. We find, for example, that while Longueuil excels in the share of the labour force using public transit (it gets an A-) and in delivering good value per dollar for fire services (A+), Montreal fares poorly in infrastructure costs per capita (C+), worse than Longueuil in fire-service efficiency (C) and miserably high in property taxes (D+).

To be sure, much of Montreal’s low standing, including infrastructure woes, stems from problems that Tremblay has inherited from previous administrations. Still, as the water-meter mess and his reliance on costly outside consultants suggest, the mayor has demonstrated little thrift in tackling such problems

Benoît LabontĂ©, the running mate of Tremblay’s main election rival Louise Harel, charges that Tremblay’s decentralization of power to the 19 boroughs is largely to blame for the inefficiencies that Maclean’s has identified. True?

Hard to say. Most urban experts in North America agree that smaller units of local government (with their smaller bureaucracies) generally deliver services more efficiently than big units. Following that logic, who knows, maybe tax dollars would go further if the boroughs obtained even more autonomy.

What is clear, however, is that nothing in Harel’s background suggests that she would be able to turn this city around. As a Parti QuĂ©becois minister, she imposed Montreal’s merger in defiance of rich documentation showing that services become less cost-effective as cities get bigger. Mega-Montreal’s experience (including the three years that preceded the decentralization) corroborates that tendency.

Unlike Tremblay, Harel has never been mayor. Her impetuous record as minister, however, makes her an even greater part of the problem.