The lights are going out at 24 of Manitoba Hydro's rural district offices in a move the province's largest Crown corporation describes as an effort to modernize it operations.
From Roblin to Piney, the closures -- half take effect in March and the rest by 2017 -- are partly due to more Hydro customers paying their bills online or through an automatic debit of their account.
Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said the shutdowns, while a blow to some towns, are a sign of the times as the power utility looks to reduce its costs. Hydro said it expects to reduce those costs by approximately $2 million annually by March 2017 and will avoid another $50 million in future costs associated with needed upgrades to the 24 affected rural offices. The closures affect 94 Hydro employees who were told of the plan Tuesday morning.
The rural closures follow three in Winnipeg since 2007, the last one in Transcona in 2012.
'They calculate what it may save them, but I don't think they calculate the human factor and what these individuals bring to the communities...'
Schneider said the rural district-office system throughout southern Manitoba was created about 40 years ago and has been overtaken with increased use of the phone and Internet for bill payments or arranging inspections.
Online or phone payments now account for the majority of bill payments to Hydro. Other services, such as applications for electrical permits, are available on the corporation's website.
"A lot has changed in 40 years," Schneider said, adding the utility understands the effect of the office closures on smaller communities.
"In a small town, you have one well-paid job leaving town. That can affect your local economy. It can be a significant thing."
Association of Manitoba Municipalities president Doug Dobrowolski said the utility should have consulted with the association before springing the bad news on southern Manitoba.
"There was a report a few years ago about closing some of the offices, but at that time we were assured that would never happen and now here we are today with 24," Dobrowolski said. "They calculate what it may save them, but I don't think they calculate the human factor and what these individuals bring to the communities as far as voluntarism and other things, because obviously these people will move to where the job is."
Schneider said the services offered by the soon-to-be-shuttered offices will be consolidated in one of 16 existing rural customer-service centres. All employees based in district offices slated for closure will report to one of those service centres. There will be no layoffs, although some may choose to retire or leave Hydro because they do not want to commute.
Hydro's rural customer-service centres are located in Lac du Bonnet, Morden, Steinbach, Selkirk, Portage la Prairie, Ashern, Arborg, Dauphin, Neepawa, Swan River, Russell, Brandon, Virden, Killarney, The Pas and Thompson.
He also said some line workers may stay in the community as they get work orders sent to them in their vehicles rather than having to report to a central office.
"They can be available after hours and continue to live and work in the community," he said, adding field staff will continue to be able to respond to the majority of calls within 45 to 60 minutes.
Hydro said the consolidation will also allow the corporation to further develop its new mobile workforce management system, announced late last month. It links computers deployed in more than 600 service trucks across the province and enables dispatch offices in Brandon, Selkirk and Winnipeg, along with regional customer-service centres, to wirelessly assign work to field staff based on location, driving times, work priority and skills required.
Schneider added Hydro will continue its review of district operations to reduce costs.
The closures should not come as a surprise.
Manitoba's Public Utilities Board has been highly critical of Hydro for not containing its ballooning operation, maintenance and administration expenses, which are largely driven by staffing levels, at a time when it wants to spend $20 billion over the next decade on new transmission lines and two new northern dams. Those costs relating to the utility's electric operations have increased from $377.6 million in 2009-10 to a forecast $470.6 million in 2013-14. Hydro currently has more than 6,000 employees.
Hydro has said it's implemented several cost-containment measures, including an external hiring freeze, restrictions on overtime and out-of-town travel, community sponsorships and donations and a greater use of technology.
The first closures will begin in January 2014 when customer service counters in the 24 affected district offices will close.