A cash-strapped Manitoba government is selling its property registry to a company owned by Ontario municipal employees for $75 million.
Finance Minister Stan Struthers said Thursday the sale to Teranet Manitoba is a good deal for the province and for users, who should see improved service.
But the union representing most of the registry's 137 workers warns that Manitobans can expect to pay higher fees to stoke the company's profits.
Struthers and Teranet chief executive officer Jay Forbes said none of the workers will be laid off. Their health benefits and pensions will be maintained and they will remain members of the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union (MGEU).
The property registry is used primarily by lawyers, real estate agents and financial institutions on behalf of clients who are buying or selling a house or applying for a loan.
In addition to the $75-million payment, Teranet will pay annual royalties to the government that, Struthers said, will exceed the revenues the province currently receives from the registry. The annual payments will start at $11 million in 2013 and climb to $24 million by the end of Teranet's 30-year licensing agreement.
In last spring's budget, Struthers vowed to sell off $83 million in government assets in an attempt to meet his fiscal projections. The property registry's privatization goes a long way to accomplishing that.
"The deal we are announcing today is good for consumers, good for taxpayers, good for employees and good for our province," said Struthers.
However, MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said she's not so sure about that. "Companies are there to make a profit. Government is elected to provide a service. When government sells the service, somebody is going to be paying for the private profits," she said in an interview.
The MGEU revealed in a news release posted on its website that Teranet has negotiated the right to raise annual fees by the rate of inflation plus one percentage point. A government spokeswoman later confirmed that point.
The MGEU expressed surprise and disappointment at the NDP's foray into privatization. "To date I think we've seen a commitment from this government to maintain public entities and protect Manitoba jobs, but that's not what we're seeing today," Gawronsky said.
Forbes said more than half the registry's staff will be eligible for retirement over the next five years. With automation he expects the registry will require fewer workers in the future.
Peter Squire, a spokesman for the Winnipeg Realtors Association, said his members are hoping the sale will mean a quicker turnaround on land title transfers. He said it's too early to offer much more comment on the deal at this time.
Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said the sale "smacks of desperation" for an NDP government that's been in power for 13 years and has just this week discovered an efficiency "that's existed potentially for many, many years."
He said the government seems to be looking for increased revenues without making a commitment to get at the root of its fiscal problems, which is excessive spending.
Teranet Manitoba will pay $75 million for the Property Registry, plus annual royalties starting at $11 million and rising to $24 million over the next 30 years.
None of the registry's 137 employees will be laid off; they will continue to be represented by their union.
All existing provincial registry offices will be maintained.
Teranet will invest $35.5 million in technical upgrades to ensure speedier secure online title searches and registrations.
The government will maintain the authority to set rates charged by the company for service.
Data used by Teranet, such as land survey and property titles, will continue to be owned by the province and protected by privacy legislation.
The government will create a new Office of the Registrar General to oversee the registry system and ensure service levels are maintained.