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Municipal merger law faces court challenge

Municipalities association, 2 RMs, 3 towns join forces

AMM president Doug Dobrowolski says letters the province sent to 11 municipalities Oct. 30 'violated the act.'

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

AMM president Doug Dobrowolski says letters the province sent to 11 municipalities Oct. 30 'violated the act.'

The province's already rocky plan to amalgamate smaller municipalities grew bumpier Wednesday when the organization that represents those communities launched an "unprecedented" court challenge.

Association of Manitoba Municipalities president Doug Dobrowolski said the AMM and five municipalities are going to court in an attempt to block what it says is the "forced nature" of the Selinger government's plan to get small municipalities to merge.

It's the latest salvo in a year-old battle by the AMM to get the province to relent on its pledge to see municipalities merged in time for the October 2014 municipal elections.

The AMM and the Opposition Progressive Conservatives say under the government's plan, the mergers will have to take place quickly to prepare the voters' list by May. They've argued amalgamations should be voluntary and delayed for the 2018 municipal elections.

Dobrowolski said the court fight is needed to bring "procedural fairness" to the merger process, which affects 87 municipalities.

He said the province sent letters Oct. 30 to 11 municipalities to be merged, outlining terms of amalgamation, including the name of the merged municipalities and location of municipal offices.

"We believe the province violated the act by sending these letters," he said. "We feel it's not fair and transparent. That's why we're challenging it."

The five municipalities are the RMs of Harrison and Grandview and towns of Plum Coulee, Emerson and Gilbert Plains.

Dobrowolski said the AMM is not against amalgamation -- it's against the process, tight deadline and what he described as the heavy hand of the province in dictating how municipalities should proceed on merging.

Municipal Government Minister Stan Struthers said the mergers will proceed regardless of what happens in court.

He said the letters his department sent were only a template for amalgamation and not set in stone.

"Local leaders have every ability to alter the plans that were sent out," he said.

Struthers said the government is willing to work with each municipality on merger plans to meet a Feb. 1 deadline, extended from Dec. 1.

Under the controversial Bill 33, the province wants municipalities under 1,000 population to amalgamate with larger communities before the 2014 municipal elections. The government has said nearly half of Manitoba's 196 municipalities have a population of fewer than 1,000 -- the threshold for a local government under provincial law.

The province has pushed amalgamation to reduce the cost of local government and take advantage of upcoming infrastructure money under Ottawa's new Building Canada Fund. The province said it expects the expedited merger process will see more municipal amalgamations in one year than in all the province's history.

Because of backlash from two Lake Winnipeg summer-resort communities, which enjoy a healthy cottage tax base despite a low population of permanent residents, the government had to amend Bill 33. Victoria Beach and Dunnottar were granted exemptions. The two communities, plus Winnipeg Beach, will continue to hold summer elections instead of in the fall.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

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