Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Municipalities blast merger plan

Say NDP acting like a bully on bill

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Doug Dobrowolski says the province and municipalities should work together on voluntary amalgamations.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Doug Dobrowolski says the province and municipalities should work together on voluntary amalgamations. Photo Store

Bill 33 is ripping apart smaller municipalities across the province and it's not even law yet, a legislative committee was told Monday night.

It was the first night of hearings -- it was to go to midnight and continues tonight -- on a bill that's divided many small towns and communities across much of southern Manitoba.

It's also caused the Town of Plum Coulee to lose its credit line and see new residential development frozen as bankers and developers wait to see if the town will still exist if merged with the larger RM of Rhineland.

"We've lost credibility," Plum Coulee Mayor Archie Heinrichs said after urging Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux and the NDP to back off on Bill 33 as it's written now.

Heinrichs, several town councillors and his chief administrative officer, Susan Stein, said the municipal amalgamation bill is too rigid and doesn't take into consideration the voice of residents.

Stein said the only cost-savings that will be realized under Bill 33 is for the province, because with fewer municipalities, it will award fewer community grants. "They should easily find the definition of bullying by looking at their own party," Stein told Lemieux and NDP members on the committee.

Association of Manitoba Municipalities president Doug Dobrowolski told the committee Bill 33 should be amended so the province and municipalities work more collaboratively over the next decade on voluntary amalgamations.

"It is about respecting and recognizing the abilities and the value of another elected order of government, not dictating to it," he said, also asking the province to back off its Jan. 1, 2015, deadline for municipalities under 1,000 population to merge with larger neighbours.

He and others also said the 1,000-population threshold is unreasonable and essentially tells those smaller municipalities they're dysfunctional.

RM of Miniota Reeve Olive McKean said her community is growing in population with oil development and amalgamation would not benefit it.

She also accused the government of timing the public hearings with the fall harvest so people from rural Manitoba could not travel to Winnipeg to make their feelings known.

"There is no benefit to causing all this disturbance to rural Manitoba," McKean said.

Much of the opposition to Bill 33 has come from resort communities in the south basin of Lake Winnipeg that enjoy a healthy cottage tax base despite a low population of permanent residents.

Lemieux has said his officials have drafted amendments to Bill 33 that would allow resort communities such as Victoria Beach and Dunnottar to stay as they are. The proposed changes come as the NDP, under a deal with the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, seek to see Bill 33 passed before the house rises as early as Friday.

As the NDP originally proposed it almost a year ago, the province-wide plan would see municipalities with an 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.

Monday night's hearings showed opposition to the bill comes from dozens of other communities throughout southern Manitoba; communities that want a similar exemption as those with summer cottages.

"Integrity is the last thing Bill 33 will accomplish," Hamiota Mayor Larry Oakden told the committee.

Oakden said while his town and the RM of Hamiota have discussed amalgamation in the past, his town merging with the larger municipality is impractical under Bill 33's timelines and its lack of input from residents.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2013 A5

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