Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

RMs join in opposition to amalgamation plan

Claim move is too hasty, details are lacking

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DOZENS of small rural municipalities throughout the province are lining up to oppose the Selinger government's attempt to force them to amalgamate with their bigger neighbours.

Some fear a loss of local identity, some fear the erosion of local programming and some fear the end of local control.

The issue, which has dominated the agendas of local governments since September, has also forced a meeting today between the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM) and Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux. The AMM wants the NDP to be more flexible in its amalgamation plan.

"What's the push here?" AMM president Doug Dobrowolski said Monday. "Are they deflecting from the real problems of the province? Our fiscal reality? Get everybody to talk about amalgamation and let's forget about what else is going on?"

AMM and municipal leaders across the province have condemned the NDP's shotgun-wedding approach for as many as 92 small municipalities and towns under 1,000 population to merge with their larger neighbours before the 2014 municipal elections.

"They want us to pick out our tuxedo and who our bridesmaids are going to be and who the best man is going to be," Binscarth Mayor Dale Sawchuk said Monday. "But the problem is there are no answers to anything. We don't like things being forced on us."

Binscarth council sent a letter to Lemieux Jan. 16 saying it was not willing to amalgamate with its neighbours, including the RM of Russell, and that it would not attend any meeting with the province on it.

Sawchuk and other municipal leaders also say that as first proposed by the province, amalgamation would be voluntary. But that changed in the past few months when Lemieux's office set a Jan. 31 deadline for small municipalities to submit their plans for merging. Sawchuk and others said that deadline is too rushed and that the province hasn't supplied enough information.

"What happens if a town has debt?" he said. "Who accumulates that debt? If a town has reserve money built up, who gets that reserve money?"

The Village of Dunnottar on Lake Winnipeg opposes amalgamation with its bigger neighbour to the south, the RM of St. Andrews, Mayor Rick Gamble said. Like Victoria Beach across the lake, Gamble said Dunnottar doesn't believe amalgamation would serve full-time and summer residents.

"Our needs are somewhat different," Gamble said. "We're more a resort community."

In southern Manitoba, 35 of 37 municipalities that attended a recent meeting in Hartney agreed to sign a letter to Lemieux saying his amalgamation plan is ill-conceived and too rushed.

"For so many municipalities in such a short period of time, it's just going to create chaos," Gamble said.

Lemieux has said his department will work with municipalities to get through the kinks. His department has also agreed to meet with reeves and councillors at AMM meetings in March.

But Dobrowolski said that's not good enough.

"We're very disappointed in the way they're executing the plan," Dobrowolski said -- the province should first deal with those municipalities that want to amalgamate.

"Just give us some time here," he said. "Don't push it.

"And more importantly, there are more important issues to be dealing with than amalgamation. We've got an infrastructure deficit. We've got planning issues. We've got all kinds of things we should be talking about and not amalgamation. Amalgamation to me will happen naturally amongst those that see fit to do that."

Enforcing long-standing law

MANITOBA has 196 municipalities, 92 of which do not meet the legal threshold of 1,000 persons.

A law setting 1,000 as the minimum population for a municipality has been in place since 1997, but it's never been enforced.

The province says smaller municipalities aren't big enough to apply successfully for provincial and federal infrastructure funding. Many also have had difficulty completing required financial audits on time, delaying access to gas-tax revenues. About $14 million in gas-tax dollars sits in a federal pot because small municipalities have not filed the needed paperwork to collect it.

The province has also said 61 per cent of smaller municipalities spend more than 20 per cent of their budgets on general government administration.

-- Owen

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 29, 2013 A4

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