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Throne speech to urge RMs to amalgamate

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THE Selinger government is sending a signal to dozens of small municipalities it is time for them to consider amalgamating with their neighbours.

The message will come in today's speech from the throne, which kicks off the new session of the Manitoba legislature.

The government is concerned nearly half of Manitoba's municipalities (92 of 196) have a population of less than 1,000 -- the legal threshold for a local government under provincial law.

Smaller municipalities have complained in recent years they are not large enough to apply successfully for certain provincial and federal programs.

Many have even had difficulty obtaining required financial audits on time, delaying access to gas-tax revenues.

"We want to really engage the municipalities in a process over the next year on voluntary amalgamation," Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux said Sunday.

Lemieux noted several municipalities with populations larger than 1,000 are already exploring amalgamation, because they can see its advantages. He would not name them, as the local governments have spoken to him in confidence, but he said he will be encouraging them to come forward now.

Lemieux said the government does not have a preconceived amalgamation plan. But it wants municipalities to begin discussing it.

The government is also considering legislative amendments in the coming year that would facilitate municipal amalgamation. Lemieux called the current process "cumbersome."

The province is hoping to convince tiny municipalities there are many benefits to becoming larger.

Among them are improved opportunities for economic growth, improved services and reduced administration costs.

"Instead of competing with each other, you could have two, three, four municipalities together and the size of (the new entity) would give them more clout, frankly," Lemieux said.

While the government is calling on municipalities to amalgamate voluntarily, Lemieux was clear Sunday it expected to see progress within the next 12 months.

"We want to make sure that we see some movement."

Of the 92 municipalities that currently fail to meet the Municipal Act's threshold of 1,000 persons, 59 per cent spend more than 20 per cent of their budgets on administration. All have fewer than 200 residents per elected official.

The province is unsure of the reception its push for municipal amalgamation will receive.

Lemieux said the government has had no formal talks with the Association of Manitoba Municipalities on the topic, but he and his senior officials have discussed the matter informally with municipal officials for some time.

Lemieux noted former Progressive Conservative local government critic Stu Briese (Agassiz), a former AMM president, has spoken of the need for amalgamation.

Lemieux said he intended to call Doug Dobrowolski, the AMM's current president, to give him a heads-up about the province's intentions. He will also address the issue when he speaks at the AMM's annual convention in Winnipeg later this month.


What else to expect in the throne speech


The government plans to introduce legislation that would protect people when they buy homes and vehicles -- two of the biggest purchases made in a lifetime. "We know that those are big purchases for people. We want to make sure that... they're well-protected because they're huge investments," NDP house leader Jennifer Howard said.


Privacy legislation


The government is also expected to tighten a key privacy law to prevent health-care workers from snooping on personal information. The recommendation was made in September by Manitoba's acting ombudsman, Mel Holley, after he investigated a case at Cancercare Manitoba. A worker at the facility read through a patient's file because of a personal gripe.


Pallister's debut


There will be a new dynamic in the legislature as Brian Pallister takes over the role of Opposition leader. Pallister was unopposed when he sought the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives last summer to replace Hugh McFadyen and will lead off question period for the first time this week.

"I want to make sure that we focus on building a stronger economy here and I want to make sure that our government is better-managed than it has been," Pallister said.


Belt tightening


The NDP is in the midst of five years of consecutive deficits and is hoping to keep this year's red ink to $448 million. To meet that target, the government has planned to sell off $80 million in government assets and find $128 million in day-to-day spending reductions. By the end of September, halfway through the fiscal year, Finance Minister Stan Struthers had not sold off any assets and had found $66 million in cuts by reducing some advertising, pushing back construction projects and other measures.


Getting more efficient


Protegra, a private business-technology company, has been hired and will be paid $700,000 to improve and streamline services. "Maybe something doesn't need to go through 10, 20 people before a family gets what they need. Maybe we can do that in a much more efficient way," said Howard.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 19, 2012 A4

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