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Amalgamation flexibility

NDP to soften bill pushing mergers of municipalities

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The Selinger government is backing down on its shotgun-wedding approach that tiny municipalities should merge with their bigger neighbours.

Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux said Tuesday his officials have drafted amendments to Bill 33 that would allow resort communities such as Victoria Beach and Dunnottar to stay as they are. "I'm encouraged right now that this might be possible," Lemieux said in an interview.

The NDP's change of heart comes as public hearings on the bill are expected to begin Saturday. So far, 87 people have signed up to speak; 59 from outside of Winnipeg.

It also comes as the NDP, under a deal with the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, want to see Bill 33 passed before the house rises as early as Sept. 13.

Lemieux said the goal of the amendments is to recognize the population in resort municipalities climbs in the summer months and because of those seasonal residents, their tax base and municipal operations are healthy.

He also said he does not want to see these municipalities incur the cost of hiring lawyers to fight the bill. He added the amendments would be worded with the input of those RMs, which also include Oak Lake and Onanole near Clear Lake.

As the NDP originally proposed it almost a year ago, the provincewide plan would see municipalities under 1,000 permanent population merge with larger ones to reduce the cost of local government. Affected municipalities would have had to submit merger plans by Dec. 1. The plans would have taken effect Jan. 1, 2015.

Lemieux had said earlier there was nothing in the legislation that would grant him the power to pick and choose which municipalities should amalgamate.

"There are no exemptions. There are none. Zero. Nada. Squat. Nothing. There's no magic wand, either," he said.

He said Tuesday the government is now prepared to listen to avoid unneeded fights.

"I'm a little encouraged that this could be done," he said.

Victoria Beach Reeve Tom Farrell said he welcomed Lemieux's olive branch. Victoria Beach was under threat of being absorbed by the larger RM of Alexander, a merger many feared would spell the end of the unique summer community that restricts vehicle traffic in July and August.

"I'm hoping that there's an opening for us," Farrell said. "I don't want to pick a fight with them if I can get what I want."

On Sunday, about 200 people in Dunnottar held a rally to protest the bill. Under Bill 33, the Lake Winnipeg village would merge with the RM of St. Andrews.

Farrell said he believes what turned the corner was many cottagers against Bill 33 besieged their NDP MLAs.

Meanwhile, the PCs launched a failed attempt Tuesday to delay debate on Bill 33 for six months.

PC Leader Brian Pallister said the only way Lemieux could repair the damage from his handling of Bill 33 is to shelve it.

"Did they paint the water with antagonistic colours? I think they did."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2013 A7

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