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Deadline pressures smaller centres

Amalgamation plans issued by province

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Sparsely populated municipalities fear they will be hard-pressed to meet a "very tight" provincial government timeline for amalgamation.

They say the Selinger government's goal -- expressed formally for the first time last week -- of seeing dozens of small municipalities join their neighbours in time for the 2014 elections may not be doable.

"I am very concerned about these timelines. I think they're very tight," said Doug Dobrowolski, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM).

It's more important that the process be done right than to meet an artificial deadline, said Dobrowolski during a break at the AMM's annual convention in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

He said he hopes the government will be flexible and extend its deadline, if need be.

Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux told the convention earlier in the day he expects targeted municipalities to have amalgamation plans completed by next fall.

Official notices will be mailed out to municipalities in the next few weeks. Lemieux said the province will be there to offer advice and assistance.

Ninety-two of Manitoba's nearly 200 municipalities have a population of fewer than 1,000 persons -- the legal threshold under provincial law. After his speech, Lemieux called the situation "unacceptable."

He noted that close to $14 million in federal gas tax transfers to Manitoba municipalities -- mainly smaller ones with few resources -- is going unclaimed because local governments have yet to submit the required financial audits. Some of the unclaimed funds date back to 2009.

The Selinger government served notice in last week's throne speech that the time has come for smaller governments to amalgamate with others to become more efficient and better serve their constituents.

The province has said it has no preconceived idea of how many municipalities should exist in Manitoba, nor does it have a master plan for amalgamation. But it wants municipalities to get started on the task.

Municipal politicians interviewed at the convention Tuesday had their doubts the process could be completed in less than two years.

"They're wondering about all the paperwork, the division of assets between municipalities," said Clayton Wareham, a councillor with the RM of Saskatchewan, population 570, located north of Brandon. Such agreements can take years to work out, he said.

Doug Newberry, councillor for the Village of Dunnottar (pop. 696), said he's struggling to see what the benefits will be.

The municipality already has service-sharing agreements with the RM of St. Andrews, which surrounds it, and Winnipeg Beach. While its permanent population is small, the town swells to more than 3,000 in summer.

Right now, the town does a good job of clearing snow. "The concerns are, if we amalgamate, is the same level of service going to be maintained?" Newberry said.

The Opposition Conservatives are reserving judgment on the process until they see the official notices the province will be mailing out to municipalities in the coming weeks.

But Tory local government critic Blaine Pedersen (Midland) said the government's approach seems to be heavy-handed.

"It sounds aggressive. It doesn't sound consultative to me," he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 28, 2012 A8

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