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Small RM resists push to integrate

Wealthy Victoria Beach against province's plan

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One of Manitoba's smallest municipalities is balking at the Selinger government's attempt to amalgamate it with its neighbour.

That's because the Rural Municipality of Victoria Beach is also one of the province's richest municipalities, according to its reeve, Tom Farrell.

"The key to this whole thing is that Victoria Beach has never been a drain on anything that the province does," Farrell said Tuesday.

The RM of Victoria Beach has appealed to Minister of Local Government Ron Lemieux to exempt it from what the RM described the "forced amalgamations" the NDP has proposed.

The Selinger government raised the spectre of amalgamation in last fall's speech from the throne. It wants dozens of small municipalities to join up with their neighbours before 2014's municipal elections. Those municipalities have until the end of the month to advise the province of their intentions.

Manitoba has 196 municipalities, 92 of which fail to 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 has never been enforced.

The government says smaller municipalities are not large enough to apply successfully for certain provincial and federal programs. Many also have had difficulty obtaining required financial audits on time, delaying access to gas-tax revenues. About $14 million in gas-tax dollars sits in a federal pot because the municipalities have not filed the necessary 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. That expenditure could be nipped through amalgamation.

Lemieux said he's aware of Victoria Beach's concerns, but added smaller municipalities have to start operating smarter and stronger. His department is prepared to work with each one so it happens sooner than later.

"The bottom line is this, though -- amalgamations are happening. That's it," he said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said the NDP's plan for municipal amalgamation appears to have little support because it was foisted upon local leaders without any prior consultation.

"For municipalities who have managed sustainably and well over a long period of time, who've been called totally dysfunctional by a government that hasn't demonstrated prudent fiscal management, I think one would expect the reaction that's been received," Pallister said.

Farrell said his Lake Winnipeg community's permanent population is less than 500, but in summer months it hits at least 4,000 people.

And it's many of those people and the cottages they own that allow the total assessed value of the RM of Victoria Beach to be more than $380 million. The RM also built a drinking-water treatment plant at a cost of $3.2 million without any provincial assistance -- a plant designed to serve 5,000 people.

Farrell said many municipalities aren't as fortunate as Victoria Beach, even though they have larger populations.

"We're not poor," he said. "My sense is the province is only looking at areas that can no longer support themselves."

Farrell said if the province pushes ahead with amalgamation, the RM would look south to the RM of Alexander to possibly absorb Albert Beach, Traverse Bay and Hillside Beach to bring it over the 1,000-population threshold.

However, the Town of Powerview-Pine Falls is also musing about merging with the RM of Alexander. The two already combine area fire-protection services. Both communities were hit when Quebec-based forestry company Tembec shut down its newsprint mill in Pine Falls two years ago, affecting about 230 jobs.

Close monitoring of channel under environmental law

TOUGH restrictions under an Environment Act licence will keep a private boat channel at Beaconia on Lake Winnipeg under ongoing scrutiny, a provincial official says.

The province recently dismissed an appeal of the licence for the channel almost three years after it was dug and area residents complained it would destroy a lakeside marsh.

Cottager Robert Rettie built the channel around the marsh to dock his two watercraft closer to his summer residence. Before digging on his land, Rettie received approval from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which oversees projects on major lakes and waterways, and the Selkirk and District Planning Area Board, provincial water development and control assessment officer Bruce Webb said.

Webb said the province issued a stop-work order when residents complained.

He said at that time the province determined Rettie also needed a provincial water-control works licence as the channel, once connected to the lake, would affect fish habitat. Rettie also needed the province's approval to dig across a Crown-owned shoreline to connect the channel to the lake.

Webb said conditions under the licence will control how the channel will be used.

"We want to have good control over the parts we have legal jurisdiction to control," he said.

The licence says excavated land on either side of the channel has to be revegetated as soon as possible to prevent erosion, and construction debris has to be disposed of to prevent it from washing into the lake. Rettie also has to control drainage from his land so it's redirected from the channel. And no work can occur in the channel between April 1 and June 3 during the nesting and spawning season.

"It's an extra prohibition," Webb said. "It's also a very easy thing for us to check on."

A fourth prohibition is Rettie can only use the channel for his boats, which is intended to restrict any further marina development.

"This licence clause prevents him from touching the marsh," Webb said. "He does not control the marsh."

Webb also said the province was not in a position to tell Rettie to fill the channel, as most of it is on his land.

"It would be a little bit dicey," he said. "Farmers clear land all the time. Farmers dig dugouts all the time."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 A7

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