JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES
Still fuming over the announcement to close a swath of Manitoba Hydro offices across the province, the Association of Manitoba Municipalities is demanding the Crown corporation reconsider its decision.
Hydro announced it will close 12 rural service centres by springtime and another 12 by 2017 as the province’s power provider pushes customer service online.
The corporation's decision was made with little or no consultation with the affected municipalities and AMM president Doug Dobrowolski said his association will ask for a re-evaluation of the centralization plan during a meeting with Hydro president and CEO Scott Thomson this week.
"We were extremely disappointed we weren’t consulted before they did this," Dobrowolski said. "They’re taking jobs away from the community."
Since 2007, Hydro says it has seen a steady decline in face-to-face transactions at district offices with a corresponding shift to using the larger regional centres. Bill payments are now largely completed either online or by phone. In addition, many customer services, such as applications for electrical permits, are now available online through the corporation’s website.
While Manitoba Hydro says it doesn’t anticipate any layoffs, Dobrowolski said he’s concerned workers will move away to the communities where the central offices will be located to be closer to work.
On the top of their list of concerns around this month’s announcement is service delivery to Manitoba’s rural areas, but Hydro insists it will be able to respond to the majority of calls within an hour.
"The reaction time is critical, especially in a major event, but I guess time will tell if what they’re doing is correct," Dobrowolski said.
This latest announcement puts salt on an already raw wound for some rural municipalities that lost many Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives’ frontline offices, along with a slew of other offices from other departments, announced earlier this year. The government said it would save $1.5 million per year as a result of those shuttered service centres.
The hydro office closures is widely considered to be a reversal of a government decentralization undertaken by the Gary Filmon government in the 1990s.
"It’s just another blow to rural Manitoba," Dobrowolski said.
It wasn’t just municipalities jolted by the news — Hydro workers were also notified at the same time as the public.
According to Alf Brade, former Manitoba Hydro district operator in Roblin, employees from that area were called to a meeting on Oct. 1 at the Elkhorn Resort in Clear Lake, where they watched a film outlining the plan. Brade said no upper management was present and the lower management that was present "had no answers," to the many questions brought up by the Roblin staff.
"That’s a little hard to swallow," Brade said.
"Guys have lost a lot of sleep wondering what’s going to happen and what they’re status is ... Morale can’t get a whole lot lower I don’t think and they’ve lost their faith."
The $92-million corporation said it will save $2 million per year as a result of the cuts.
Hydro spokesperson Glenn Schneider said the company will also save $50 million in future costs associated with aged buildings in many of the affected rural areas — a conservative estimate, he added. Of the 24 soon-to-be closed offices, 15 are more than 30 years old and will need to be replaced over the next 10 years.
"Recent costs to replace district offices ranged from $2 million to $5 million depending on size and other requirements," Schneider said in a recent email to the Sun. "In addition, the remaining offices being closed are between 20 and 30 years old and would need some upgrades and significant maintenance."
Ray Orr, mayor of Minnedosa, along with other municipalities, are taking a second glance at Hydro’s claimed cost savings.
Orr questions the logic behind mothballing the well-maintained Minnedosa office (which is slated for the second round of closures by 2017) to build a new building down the road in Neepawa.
"One cannot help but ask if there are other areas of operation where savings could be better achieved without the negative impact of this approach?" Orr asked in an open letter.
» firstname.lastname@example.org, with files from Charles Tweed
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 28, 2013