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Too small by half

Manitoba municipalities lack the population to qualify

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WASKADA — By Prairie ghost town standards, the village of Waskada is doing pretty well.

It's got a school, a credit union, a gem of a museum and a new mini-oil boom that has seen dozens of derricks sprout up in the surrounding neon-yellow canola fields.

"Six houses changed hands in the last six months, which doesn't sound like a lot, but it's huge," said Mayor Gary Williams. "It's crazy around here."

But, by mercenary taxpayer standards, Waskada shouldn't exist.

With 199 souls, Waskada is Manitoba's tiniest incorporated municipality, one of more than 30 "official" towns and rural municipalities with their own taxing powers, elected city councils and bylaws even though they have fewer residents than some downtown Winnipeg apartment towers.

 

The Municipal Act requires a population of 1,000 for an area to be incorporated, but when municipalities shrink, they don't lose their status. So 96, nearly half, of Manitoba municipalities wouldn't qualify if they were applying for incorporation today. Like many marginal municipalities, Waskada is under gentle but frequent pressure from the province and from policy wonks to merge with a neighbour or two.

That pressure could grow as rural populations continue to shrink.

If current population trends continue, 43 municipalities will have zero residents by 2050, said University of Manitoba Prof. Gordon Goldsborough in a recent history of Manitoba's towns and RMs.

"[C]an we ignore the fact that a large number of Manitoba's municipalities have too few people to justify their independence? There are more people living on single streets in Winnipeg than in some rural municipalities," wrote Goldsborough, a past-president of the Manitoba Historical Society. "Do each of those streets warrant their own council and mayor?"

There are 201 local governments representing a population about two-thirds the size of Winnipeg, meaning each municipality might have a chief administrative officer, a recreation director, a community development officer, public works and maintenance staff, and an administrative assistant or two.

A few municipalities are patently dysfunctional. The RM of La Broquerie was recently rocked by allegations of corrup--tion, fraud and harassment when the recently-fired CAO accused some councillors of installing surveillance cameras to spy on staff and rivals. And, Manitoba's auditor general is probing allegation of conflict of interest in the RM of St Laurent, whose council is politically deadlocked.

Dwindling populations leave a smaller cadre of capable citizens willing to grapple with the minutiae of permitting and zoning rules, housing strategies, tripartite infrastructure funding, hefty new water and sewage regulations, economic development and the rest. In the last election, there were so few candidates, the councils of 31 municipalities were acclaimed. That number could increase this fall, when every municipality goes to the polls.

Already, rural Manitoba is a crazy patchwork of planning districts, school boards, health regions, economic development zones and conservation districts. Each has its own boundaries and almost none match up.

But they are evidence of large-scale co-operation that already exists, especially among the 116 RMs. Many have banded together to form 44 planning districts that do joint land and transportation planning.

On the face of it, those 44 districts look like a reasonable template for new amalgamated boundaries.

Meanwhile, watershed districts do a lot of the drainage and environmental management. And, many RMs have created regional economic development agencies to woo investment and residents to the area and reduce jockeying for businesses between neighbouring RMs.

If they already do so much jointly, and the governance role of RMs has been eroded by jointly-run agencies, does it make sense just to streamline things and amalgamate?

When tax-bases are shrinking and costs are on the rise, economies of scale could make it cheaper to provide the modern services Manitobans demand -- clean water, garbage and recycling pick-up, decent sewage treatment, paved roads, recreation. Research shows there's ample evidence that big-city amalgamations like Winnipeg's Unicity don't really save money, but that might not be true for smaller towns and RMs that struggle to find the cash and staff to provide the basics without hiking taxes.

In 2003, when former NDP MLA MaryAnn Mihychuk was the local government minister, she noted in a speech to municipal politicians that 40 per cent of them had boosted their property taxes by 10 per cent or more that year alone -- a trend she called unsustainable then and that has continued apace since. She called on municipalities to co-operate more.

When the RM of Gimli merged with the town of Gimli several years ago after a messy debate, taxpayers there did see initial savings. And, the merger eliminated a nagging inequality: Many people lived in the RM but used Gimli's town services without paying taxes to the town. That was another compelling argument for amalgamation.

And, in practical terms, does it really make sense to hold elections, pay politicians and organize council meetings for a population of 300 or 400 people? Would bigger RMs boost the talent pool of municipal leaders and make elections more competitive?

It's an old idea in Manitoba, whose local government boundaries haven't fundamentally changed since the turn of the last century.

That's despite dwindling rural populations as small family farms consolidate, schools and hospitals close and rail lines are abandoned -- including Waskada's -- in favour of well-paved roads that funnel rural residents to big-box stores in larger towns.

Except in the Steinbach-Winkler-Morden corridor, almost every rural town, village and RM has seen its population wither.

In 1964, a royal commission recommended shrinking Manitoba's municipalities to fewer than 60. Less than a decade later, the Local Boundaries Commission released a tough-minded report that also sought to reduce the number of municipalities, largely by aligning their boundaries with those of rural school districts.

The commission called the province's antiquated boundaries "a very serious threat to municipal government in this province" but said change would only come through aggressive legislation by the province. The leaders of small RMs and towns would never part with their local authority, said the report. Most of the commission's more radical recommendations were ignored.

Since the former Filmon government tweaked the Municipal Act, and even before, the province has taken a hands-off approach to amalgamation, preferring to gently encourage it rather than even hint at legislating it.

With a provincial election about a year away, municipal amalgamation would be a political minefield for the NDP, which needs rural ridings to form government. Same for the Tories, whose political base is outside the Perimeter Highway. A decade ago, Saskatchewan tried to merge some of its mind-boggling 786 municipalities and people balked, and municipal mergers were among the more controversial elements of former Ontario Premier Mike Harris's Common Sense Revolution.

The state of shrinking town and county governments was on the agenda at this week's meeting of provincial municipal affairs ministers in Ottawa. On a break from those meetings, Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux said it's up to towns and RMs to merge voluntarily, the same view held by AMM President Doug Dobrowolski.

"We are not going to force amalgamations," said Lemieux. "Municipalities themselves know their situation best."

And, some have voluntarily united in recent years -- Gimli and Gimli in 2003, Killarney and Turtle Mountain in 2007 and the two Shoal Lakes are doing so right now.

And Lemieux noted that Manitoba's rural governments are in pretty good financial shape, which is true, according to data released by the province under Access to Information. No RM has a worrisome debt level, most submit their fairly hefty financial and tax plans to the province on time and many, including Waskada, run surpluses.

But, the gentle encouragement to merge still happens.

At the huge annual meetings of the province's 201 municipalities, Waskada's reps often get paged to come to impromptu meetings with provincial officials looking to nudge the town and the RM into marriage.

Williams isn't keen. Like many small towns, he's worried that Waskada's specific services like garbage collection and fire protection and recreation would get diluted or ignored by a bigger RM with a more rural focus.

Political scientists and rural advocates studying the issues all over Canada have argued that local government is the closest to the people, the most responsive and the most accountable, but mostly the arguments against merging are visceral, born of loyalty to a place that's existed under legislation, like Waskada, for more than 100 years.

There's already a fair bit of sharing that goes on among many municipalities. Waskada shares a tidy town hall with the RM of Brenda as well as some staff. It's not clear whether melding would save Waskada and Brenda any money -- the jury is still out on whether consolidating health districts was the right move, noted Williams.

And, there's the pride of place that comes with being an official, incorporated town that pops up on in-car GPS mapping gadgets, which Waskada does.

"What we have going on here seems fine to us," said Williams. "I see no reason to entertain amalgamation."

The mini-oil boom gives Williams even more ammunition when the province tries to cajole him into merging. The town is actually growing -- there will be more new students in the K-12 school this fall than just graduated and Waskada is suffering a little housing shortage as oil workers move in for jobs expected to last at least a decade.

Said the AMM's Dobrowolski: "You can't judge a community by its population alone."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2010 H1

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