Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Forget bullying, beef up amalgamation bill

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After 14 years in power, it comes as little surprise the NDP government in this province is often portrayed as a bully with little regard for ideas that run counter to its own agenda.

That was the allegation made in question period last Friday, when Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister used the lyrics of Otis Redding's hit Respect to symbolize Premier Greg Selinger's lack of respect for the wishes of Manitobans.

Forget that the lyrics of Respect are mostly nonsensical and do not lend themselves to a poignant political reference. Forget as well that having a politician read lyrics made famous by Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is a wee bit squirm-worthy. No matter, Pallister's message was this government has lost touch with its populace.

Pallister referenced several pieces of NDP legislation to reinforce the lack-of-respect allegation. Ironically, there is Bill 18, the anti-bullying and anti-homophobia law. Bill 20 would allow an increase in the PST without a referendum as required under the Balanced Budget Act. Lastly, we have Bill 33, which sets out a timetable for municipal amalgamations.

Although not as heavily debated as the other two bills, Bill 33 is still worthy of note. Municipalities with fewer than 1,000 residents must present merger plans by Dec. 1 and amalgamations must be completed by January 2015.

Amalgamations make a lot of sense, and in fact many progressive municipalities have already voluntarily merged with neighbours to create efficiencies and reduce duplication. That has not stopped other municipal leaders and the Opposition Tories from accusing Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux of being a bully by forcing merger plans by this fall.

Lemieux did little to dispel this allegation when, after a particularly rocky reaction to the bill, he called mayors and reeves "insolent children." He also seemed a bit too enthusiastic when he threatened to force smaller municipalities to merge if they defied him.

However, in their outrage, critics missed an important point: Bill 33 could have been, maybe should have been, much tougher than it is. All the evidence e suggests the threshold for amalgamation is much less ambitious than necessary to achieve the benefits of a merger.

The argument in favour of amalgamation is simple: Smaller jurisdictions are less cost-effective and operate without the administrative capacity and tax base to take advantage of cost-sharing programs.

Lemieux noted smaller municipalities have left $12 million in federal gas-tax rebates on the table because they couldn't perform the audits to qualify. Lemieux also noted many of the smallest municipalities were unable to participate in Ottawa's Building Canada Fund because they didn't have the revenue to cover their share.

The debate over the optimum size of a municipality has gone on in Canada -- a big country with a relatively small population -- for decades. In Manitoba during the early 1960s, then-premier Duff Roblin's government released a study on the optimum size of municipalities, suggesting each jurisdiction should have at least 5,000 residents. A study commissioned by the province from Brandon University's Rural Development Institute said municipalities should have at least 3,000 residents and a minimum tax base of $130 million.

Remarkably, in setting the minimum target for municipal amalgamation at just 1,000 residents, Bill 33 ignores all this compelling data, even research commissioned from BU. Even more remarkable is the timing of the legislation and the report.

The Rural Development Institute delivered its report to Lemieux on April 25. Bill 33 was tabled just a week later, on May 1. The timing means Lemieux had finished drafting the bill before receiving the RDI report. That is a wasteful, somewhat backwards approach to developing good public policy.

Lemieux said in an interview he agrees setting a target of between 3,000 and 5,000 people would produce better overall results for merged municipalities. However, he said he promised municipalities last fall, after the government signalled its intentions in the throne speech, to use 1,000 as the target.

That is somewhat noble. But it doesn't make much sense when Lemieux also acknowledges a higher target would produce more benefits.

Also curious is the approach by the Tories, who don't oppose amalgamation, per se, but instead are trying to make political hay over the way Bill 33 is implemented. That's fine, but the Tories have missed the fact Lemieux's bill may not be all that effective in achieving its stated goals. The Tories seem only interested in stoking anger over the bill and not whether it is effective policy.

Municipal amalgamation is, from a practical standpoint, pretty much a no-brainer. Unfortunately, we have a government bill that does not go far enough to maximize the benefits of amalgamation and an Opposition that is disinterested in making the bill better.

In the public-policy world, that is lose-lose, for those of you scoring at home.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2013 B1

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