Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

PST hike taketh and taketh from RMs

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This year's provincial budget announcement of an increase to the PST came out of left field. Municipalities have been lobbying for a share of the PST for years, on the condition it be dedicated to municipal infrastructure. An Association of Manitoba Municipalities poll conducted in 2011 showed 60 per cent of Manitobans would actually support paying one more cent on the dollar if the increase was totally dedicated to fixing municipal roads, sidewalks and recreation centres -- the infrastructure we use every day.

Premier Greg Selinger told us his government was not elected to raise taxes. Now he has done just that. Yet municipalities will see only a fraction -- $31 million -- of the additional $277 million raised annually. The rest -- money municipalities needed to tackle our enormous infrastructure deficit -- will now be spent on other provincial priorities. This will not address the more than $11-billion municipal infrastructure deficit we have repeatedly asked the province to address.

The increase also means the province will collect even more PST from municipalities on their purchases or infrastructure projects -- from an extra $67,000 from the RM of Macdonald to $1.4 million more from the City of Winnipeg. We believe one order of government taxing another is inappropriate as it amounts to double taxation.

Another very troubling piece of legislation is Bill 33 -- the Municipal Modernization Act. The AMM has been busy dealing with the amalgamation issue since it was announced -- again, without warning -- in last fall's throne speech, and our position has not wavered: The AMM is not against amalgamations if the decision has been made by municipalities and supported by residents. What we oppose is a top-down approach to amalgamation by the province.

Neither provincial nor municipal leaders ran in the last election on the campaign promise to amalgamate municipalities.

It is any municipality's right to choose this course of action, and the municipality is best equipped to make this choice. There should also be enough time and support to make sure the process is done right. Amalgamations are complicated, and there are some serious implications, such as policing if two municipalities have different police forces. There is uncertainty as to how this will work until the full costs are determined and communicated.

The province has suggested amalgamations will make municipalities more efficient and save money. The truth is municipalities are already required to balance their budgets each year, and smaller jurisdictions can often deliver services to residents at lower cost.

There are currently 74 people registered to speak on Bill 33, and the AMM will be first in line to present on this bill when the time comes. We have strongly encouraged Manitobans affected by this prescriptive piece of legislation to speak out on the bill as well. We know there are many municipalities steadfast in their belief amalgamation is not right for them, and their voices should be heard.

Despite the heavy-handed approach by the NDP government, we do live in a democracy.

Or do we? Minister of Local Government Ron Lemieux recently attended six of the AMM's district meetings. At each meeting, he told the municipal officials in the room the same thing: It doesn't matter whether this legislation passes in July, or in August, or in September, this majority government will pass Bill 33 and there will be amalgamations.

Bill 33 requires municipalities to consult with their citizens on amalgamation, yet Lemieux also made it clear opposition from citizens within their own communities would not impact or delay the legislation.

Municipal leaders were understandably discouraged upon hearing these statements. Obviously, a majority government has the right to pass laws. They have the ability to push through legislation despite opposing parties' hoist motions, filibusters and other stalling tactics. To believe otherwise would be naive. Bill 33 is only one of several bills that will be pushed through regardless of the number of presenters that appear before committees.

However, to openly admit before arguments are even heard that you have stopped listening is simply arrogant.

And that is the most troubling aspect of the entire amalgamation issue: the complete lack of respect demonstrated by the Selinger government toward Manitoba's local order of government.

Doug Dobrowolski is president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 A17

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