Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Forced amalgamations of rural municipalities arrogant

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Since the announcement of a one percentage point increase to the provincial sales tax in the NDP budget, much of the discussion has been around a lack of public input. The elimination of a referendum is seen by many as undemocratic.

Unfortunately, this is not the first example of undemocratic behaviour by the government of Manitoba in recent memory.

Last November, the Selinger government surprised Manitoba municipalities with a throne speech announcement that it would begin a process of municipal amalgamations and that almost half of Manitoba's 197 municipalities do not meet the legal threshold of 1,000 residents.

Municipalities reacted with emotions ranging from confusion to disbelief. Adding even more distress was the directive that this process would occur before the next municipal election, less than two years away. This includes resort areas such as Winnipeg Beach and other communities where many Winnipeggers spend their summers.

Months later, the reasoning behind this announcement is as muddled and unclear as it was back in November.

The Association of Manitoba Municipalities, which represents Manitoba's 197 incorporated municipalities, immediately assured its membership that municipalities are an independent, elected order of government and, as such, the decision to amalgamate rests with them.

The Selinger government, however, insisted that amalgamations will occur, regardless of the wishes of the municipalities or the citizens who reside within them. The government carried through on that threat with the introduction of the Municipal Modernization Act this week.

The question is why? The number of bridges, community centres and kilometres of road will not be reduced with fewer municipalities. The government has been neither able to demonstrate any evidence that money will be saved after amalgamation, nor that quality of life for citizens will improve.

In fact, there is evidence that costs will go up.

A study by the C.D. Howe Institute states that amalgamation "tends to eliminate the very characteristics of local government that are critical to successful low-cost operations."

Questions about why municipalities have to amalgamate, how they will benefit and why the process is so rushed remain unclear to this day. The suggestion that small municipalities are inefficient is a poor argument, as municipalities are required by law to balance their budgets each year. Most do so quite effectively regardless of their size.

Whatever the reason, this bullying behaviour should concern every citizen of Manitoba, whether directly affected by amalgamation or not.

You see, the Selinger government is not only forcing its will on municipalities, it is removing public consultations from this process. Citizens will be unable to exercise their rights to let their government know what they think about the future of their communities.

That is undemocratic at best, and at its worst, arrogant.

It also clearly shows a government that has become so removed from the people who elected it that we run the very real risk of losing our voice in a myriad of issues.

Proof of this arrogance is the statement of one NDP MLA during the last legislative session: "Municipalities with less than 1,000 people -- clearly dysfunctional." And yet those same municipalities were the hubs of successful flood-fighting efforts in 2009 and 2011, with municipal officials working hand in hand with their residents to protect their homes and communities. They are prepared to do the same this spring if necessary.

The AMM does not oppose amalgamation -- far from it. What we oppose is the excessively tight timelines, the use of a 1,000 threshold regardless of the viability and sustainability of a community, and the lack of public consultation.

We also oppose any suggestion that municipal leaders are simply protecting their jobs. Municipal leaders already receive low remuneration as compared with their provincial counterparts. They contribute countless hours to serve their communities because they are part of the communities. Most are not interested in becoming elected officials of larger areas that will end up costing their citizens more money.

The AMM has offered numerous compromises to the provincial government. We have suggested assessing communities before forcing them to amalgamate, since many are thriving despite having fewer than 1,000 people. We've also asked for provincial support for municipalities that are ready to amalgamate so they can lead by example. And we have recommended working with municipalities that are struggling on acceptable timelines for amalgamation, rather than rushing such an important and historical process. Our suggestions have been all but ignored.

This is not simply a rural issue. It is, at its core, a human issue. It is often said that everyone "came from somewhere" -- this is true of many Winnipeggers. What the Selinger government is proposing -- no, forcing -- is about a loss of our heritage, a loss of identity, and a loss of a way of life. And it will change the landscape of our province forever.

Doug Dobrowolski is president of the

Association of Manitoba Municipalities.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 A15

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