The Manitoba government is taking the right approach in developing a process to help small rural communities examine the possible benefits of amalgamation, but the decision ultimately rests with local ratepayers.
The province says it won't compel marginal municipalities to merge against their will, but it wants them to begin studying the issue in a serious way.
Conventional wisdom assumes that tiny communities would be stronger if they merged because they would enjoy the economies of scale that flow from larger units. The problem is municipalities claim they have studied the issue and concluded the savings would be negligible.
Local communities in Manitoba are very attached to their traditions and history, which is one reason why the province has nearly as many municipal governments -- 198 -- as it did a century ago.
Rural communities have responded to the need for efficiencies by creating regional planning boards and economic development agencies, as well as watershed districts and tax-sharing agreements.
In other words, they find savings where they make sense, but prefer to hang on to their local identities and representatives.
Rural Manitoba, today, however, is suffering from depopulation as people move from farms and small villages to larger communities. The Capital Region, for example, represents about two-thirds of the entire provincial population.
If the current trend continues, 43 incorporated municipalities could have zero residents within 40 years, according to one study. In fact, nearly half of all municipalities have less than 1,000 people, which means they wouldn't even qualify for incorporation if they applied today.
If the trend continues, some mergers will be moot, but rural communities shouldn't close their minds to the idea of amalgamation before the last door closes.
It's hard to accept, for example, that adjacent communities with only a few hundred people each wouldn't benefit from a single administration and the more efficient use of municipal equipment and staff.
The province could provide a useful service in showing how mergers might cut tax bills and improve service.
Ultimately, however, local ratepayers should have the last word on the subject, since they are the ones paying the freight.