Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Communities' are more than arbitrary numbers

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The Selinger government's big push to force smaller municipalities to amalgamate assumes bigger is more efficient. Experiences in Ontario tell a different story.

The social context prevalent in rural areas, where the web of life derives from group and individual commitment to communities, if allowed to work, will illustrate most Manitoba municipal entities are perfectly capable of solving their own problems.

Forced amalgamation simply creates unneeded angst and resentment, increases costs and reduces effectiveness. Over time, many will decide to consolidate on their own. Forcing them to the altar under an arbitrary time limit, however, illustrates lack of understanding of rural social processes.

Ontario, under then-premier Mike Harris, forced amalgamations in a number of areas "for their own good." It turned out more "for their own bad."

There are many examples, but the one I lived through personally more than 15 years ago was Prince Edward County. There, a number of township governments, towns and villages were forced together. Without going into all the details, it is sufficient to note costs increased substantially, and the new government structure with all its committees and procedures reduced effectiveness and left lasting bitterness, trying the patience of everyone affected. Along the way it produced multi-layered bureaucracies, and drastically complicated access to services for many citizens.

Evolution through open democratic processes will result in relevant and effective rural government structures. Officials in cities, many of whom are generations away from rural realities, are not the ones best suited to determine the most appropriate structures for rural areas.

Rural change continues. Across the Prairies, secondary centres providing a complete mix of services, including farm machinery, average about 110 kilometres apart. Towns are either smaller or their demographic structure has shifted toward older cohorts, whereas rural structures have remained more mixed.

Town workforces are generally salaried workers, small business owners, retirees or farmers living in town. Farmers today know what it means to own and operate large capital-intensive, high-operating-cost enterprises, and how to manage debt when required. Given this capability, many municipalities already work together on a variety of projects and programs: a sort of informal amalgamation.

Each rural community plays an important role in the social structure, and their local governments are central to this. Evolving structures for social interaction and achievement bind them together. As that interaction begins to evolve to embrace another neighbouring centre or groups of them, the local bonds weaken, and community commitments begin to shift accordingly.

Although it may be easier in the initial stages to see this evolution from the outside, it can only be addressed effectively from within.

The recent Free Press article Niverville finds creative solutions exemplifies how rural communities find ways to meet their specific needs. Seniors were in effect forced to move away from family and friends due to lack of personal care facilities. Consequently, despite significant population growth over the past decade, Niverville's age cohort older than 75 years remained too small to qualify for provincial funding.

Local dedicated and committed citizens intervened and they completed, on time and on budget (well below provincial estimates), a personal care facility without provincial help that took into account special local needs.

Farming areas making up most of the rural municipalities include well-trained entrepreneurs who are running multi-million dollar operations. They volunteer considerable time to their community, often as rural municipal councillors or reeves. Who better to be in charge of local government operations?

They carry the equivalent level of professional responsibilities as their salaried counterparts in larger towns and cities, and they do it with token compensation.

Amalgamation risks losing this strong capacity in favour of increased costs and bureaucracies, as larger municipalities will likely extend beyond the existing "local community."

The structure for any given community should reflect its role. It should not be based on some arbitrary population number dreamed up in Winnipeg.

Academic studies need to focus more on roles and community processes, not "efficiencies" that cannot be achieved if individual commitments to a community are frustrated. Given that each community plays important roles, amalgamation could break the commitment of many people who now willingly devote their time and expertise.

Hiring outside professionals with no deep personal understanding of, or commitment to, the community cannot make up this considerable loss. Where particular expertise is necessary, structural engineering for example, it can be contracted.

Why not let municipalities decide on their own if and when to amalgamate? Under such conditions, all the angst is eliminated before anything starts, and local commitment to the new municipality will assure positive acceptance and smooth operations in the short term. Some municipalities might even split with parts joining different RMs for social, watershed or transportation reasons.

Forced amalgamation will only generate long term resentments.

Is it really necessary to put rural people through this? At a time when obvious shifts in climate are signaling the need for both substantial new investments in compensation and mitigation, and new initiatives to avoid future impacts, cooperation is what is important, not fighting an imposed system. These issues will bring broader area groups into discussions about how to address possible impacts, and greater cooperation amongst them, if not amalgamation, will surely evolve.

Consultations are needed on this subject: true consultations involving the broader public, not a Manitoba Hydro type "one meeting to tell everyone what they're going to do." Rather, a process that might last two or more years is needed for positive results, where everyone wins and resentments disappear.

The Selinger government might facilitate this process, but stop short of imposing solutions from the outside.

What's to be lost by trying a positive approach?

 

Jim Collinson is a management consultant specializing in energy, economy and environment issues. He was a former assistant deputy minister in the Department of Regional Economic Expansion.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2013 A9

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