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Give Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux some credit.

He hasn't given an inch in his government's push to amalgamate Manitoba's smallest municipalities despite many of them refusing to oblige.

Lemieux has even agreed to stick in his head in the lion's mouth even further when he meets with the leaders of many of these municipalities in a series of upcoming Association of Manitoba Municipalities meetings in March.

To see what Lemieux is up against, check out this letter:

January 28, 2013

Dear Minister Lemieux:

We the undersigned would like to take this opportunity to jointly respond to the communications received from you and your department on the subject of amalgamation.

According to the Municipal Act, 1,000 residents are required to form a new municipality. However, "a municipality may be formed by the amalgamation of two or more municipalities even though the municipality formed may have a population of less than 1,000 residents." Nowhere does it state that existing municipalities should be restructured to contain 1,000 residents. It also states that it is the duty of each member of council "to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality." We are not opposed to change if that change brings about tangible benefits.

In his remarks at the AMM convention banquet in November Premier Selinger cited a report from the 1960's as recognition, so long ago, that Manitoba's municipalities are too small and should be combined into larger entities. Unfortunately, the report is nearly 50 years out of date as it was written before regionalism became the operating norm in rural Manitoba. Almost everything small municipal governments do, with the exception of road maintenance, is now done on a regional basis. These arrangements have evolved gradually on an as-needed and as-willing basis. In many cases amalgamation would force these specific alliances to be broken up or reshaped into new partnerships with partners that are not necessarily so willing.

A more recent and relevant study by the C.D. Howe institute, authored by Robert L. Bish of the University of Victoria and published in 2001, entitled "Local Government Amalgamations: Discredited Nineteenth-Century Ideals Alive in the Twenty-First," argues that "Amalgamations forced on municipalities by provincial governments are the product of flawed nineteenth-century thinking and a bureaucratic urge for more centralized control." The study identifies virtually no cost savings. It further states, "large and centralized governments will be further removed from their voters and less able to respond effectively to local needs and choices.'

For our neighbours south of the border, mergers are generally a thing of the past as the number of U.S. municipalities has increased from 16,800 to 19,300 since 1952. (Professor Howard Husock, Director of Case Studies in Public Policy at Harvard University.)

There are several points that must be made in response to the specific arguments put forward by the province as justification for the amalgamation agenda:

  • There is no link between municipal size as defined by population and the relative likelihood of having audits up to date.
  • With respect to the issues of municipal planning and emergency preparedness, these are issues are now generally dealt with regionally as are so many other regional initiatives, with as many as eleven small municipalities co-operating as one group. What is there to be gained if some of these were larger entities?
  • As to the actual emergency response to the flooding of 2011, the response in the smaller jurisdictions was handled by an overwhelming and heartening display of volunteerism. This was progressively less so with increasingly larger jurisdictions. Had the proposed amalgamations been in effect, the response could only have been slower and more costly. It has also been suggested that larger jurisdictions would have more resources to put into those areas facing emergency situations. In 2011 the emergency was everywhere at once.
  • This leaves economic development. In some areas the biggest impediment to economic development is seen to be the provincial government which has repeatedly blocked otherwise viable projects that didn't fit into its plans for the provincial road network. This steers development and its associated employment to certain areas, but with our current "winner take all" system these areas also get all the tax benefits for what is a regional development. It is assumed that this is what the province is referring to in mentioning economic development as justification for amalgamations. We would respectfully suggest that tax sharing agreements would be a much better solution.
  • No serious provincial effort to promote regional economic development would start with funding cuts for the same.

The relationship between governments at the local level and the provincial government has always been one of mutual respect. However, in the recent throne speech and follow- up communication, despite abundant platitudes about co-operation and respect, the bottom line is that small municipalities will be "required" to submit proposals as to how and with whom they will amalgamate. Statements were made in the legislature that small municipalities were "clearly dysfunctional." And, as we heard at the AMM convention, "Let's be clear, these amalgamations will take place." It is hard to see how this is the language of respect.

For those municipalities that have decided that they want to pursue amalgamation, thank you for the support offered to achieve that. As for those municipalities that feel that amalgamation is not in the best interest of their rate-payers, thanks, but no thanks.

Yours sincerely,

(See attached list)

cc: Premier Greg Selinger

Hon. Ron Lemieux

MLA Larry Maguire

MLA Leanne Rowat

Association of Manitoba Municipalities

All Manitoba municipalities

List of signatories:

1. RM of Albert

2. RM of Archie

3. RM of Argyle

4. RM of Arthur

5. RM of Blanchard

6. Town of Boissevain

7. RM of Brenda

8. RM of Cameron

9. Town of Carberry

10. Village of Cartwright

11. RM of Cornwallis

12. Town of Deloraine

13. RM of Edward

14. Village of Elkhorn

15. RM of Glenwood

16. Town of Hartney

17. RM of Morton

18. Town of Oak Lake

19. RM of Oakland

20. RM of Pipestone

21. Town of Plum Coulee

22. RM of Riverside

23. RM of Roblin

24. RM of Sifton

25. Town of Souris

26. RM of Strathcona

27. Town of Virden

28. RM of Wallace

29. Village of Waskada

30. Village of Wawanesa

31. RM of Whitehead

32. RM of Whitewater

33. RM of Winchester

34. RM of Woodworth

There’s also this: Many municipalities say the province is pushing the idea of amalgamation that if a municipality has under 1,000 people it’s in violation of the Municipal Act.

They say that doesn’t jibe with the Municipal Act. They say it only applies if you want to form a new municipality.

They say the following regulation confirms that their towns and municipalities are valid in all respects regardless of being less than 1,000 population.

Also, they say the Municipal Act states that new municipalities need at least 1,000 population, but if two municipalities want to amalgamate they do not require 1,000 population:

THE MUNICIPAL ACT (C.C.S.M. c. M225)

4(1) The following types of municipalities may be formed under this Part:

(a) an urban municipality;

(b) a rural municipality.

(c) Urban municipality

4(2) An urban municipality may be formed for an area with at least 1,000 residents and a population density of at least 400 residents per square kilometre.

Rural municipality

4(3) A rural municipality may be formed for an area with at least 1,000 residents and a population density of less than 400 residents per square kilometre.

Exception for amalgamation of municipalities

4(4) A municipality may be formed by the amalgamation of two or more municipalities even though the municipality formed may have a population of less than 1,000 residents.

Municipality in remote area

4(5) A municipality may be formed for an area that is part of an existing municipality where that area is

(a) remote; and

(b) not contiguous to another municipality.

Both sides appear to have drawn the lines in the sand.

The next few weeks will determine which municipalities make to the trip the altar.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

 

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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