Some of Manitoba’s smallest municipalities sent a clear message to the province regarding potential amalgamations — "We’re not going to take it."
RM of Cornwallis Reeve Reg Atkinson said that during a recent meeting in Hartney between municipalities in Manitoba’s Western District, there was staunch opposition to the provincial mandate.
"The province doesn’t make many valid arguments for amalgamations," Atkinson said. "I don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t think a lot of municipalities are going to do it. They are going to have to take a lot of them to jail."
Following the meeting, 35 of the 37 municipalities that attended signed a letter saying the amalgamation plan is ill-conceived and rushed.
The blow back comes following the provincial government’s announcement in November that all municipalities of less than 1,000 residents must amalgamate with neighbours to reach the number that represents the legal threshold for a local government under provincial law.
Jan. 31 marked the deadline for municipalities currently under the threshold to indicate which neighbouring municipality it would like to merge with.
While the province has pointed to more efficiency delivering services and economic opportunity as primary reasons for the amalgamations, Atkinson said their reasoning is "flawed" and furthermore he believes a lot of relationships already cultivated and established between municipal officials could be impacted by the mergers.
"There is already a great deal of sharing between municipalities and I think that it could be damaged by this process. Amalgamations will destroy some planning districts."
During the meeting, according to Atkinson, Killarney-Turtle Mountain Mayor Rick Pauls repeatedly stated that his municipality accrued no cost savings when they chose to amalgamate the town and the RM several years ago.
Atkinson said one municipality was in favour of amalgamating with a neighbour, which he supports. What he doesn’t support is forcing municipalities to amalgamate against their wishes.
Another provincial argument for amalgamation attempts to make a correlation between the size of the municipality with its ability to submit financial audits that could delay access to gas-tax revenues. It’s an argument that Atkinson said is blatantly false, and he questions if the government has the credibility to tell municipalities how to run their books.
"Municipalities have to balance their books and the province keeps telling us they are going to balance their books, but it’s five years down the road. So how do they have the right, and why do they think they’re smart enough to tell municipalities how to balance their books?"
In a letter addressed to Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux, the RM of Woodworth council lists more than 15 services it already shares with other communities and municipalities.
"We have a balanced budget, strong reserve base and no debt," RM of Woodworth Reeve Denis Carter said.
The RM of Woodworth, which has 860 residents, is subject to the amalgamations.
"(We) would like to suggest that now is not the right time for a decision for amalgamation to be made for this municipality," Carter said.
Council also passed a resolution opposing "the province’s decision to force municipalities with a population of less than 1,000 to amalgamate."
And in the RM’s preliminary indication of amalgamating partners presented to the province, it lists none.
For his part, Lemieux has remained steadfast in his commitment to see the amalgamations in time for the 2014 municipal elections.
While using preliminary data, Lemieux said throughout the process three camps have broken out: one-third of municipalities that support amalgamation and are ready to move forward; one-third of municipalities that need more information; and one-third that oppose the amalgamations.
Lemieux said the government is committed to providing resources, including field consultants that will hold seminars to provide municipalities with answers to the questions about the partnerships.
"There are some that are going to be against it. And they are going to be against it no matter what the conditions are and no matter how long a government would give them," Lemieux said.
"Once they get the education on how to go about it and answer a lot of their questions, I really feel that is going to help them."
As of Monday, according to a government spokesman, 62 per cent of municipalities with less than 1,000 people had responded to the Local Government Department. However, the spokesman didn’t know how many municipalities provided a partner compared to how many left the information blank in defiance.
While it’s still early, Lemieux said all options, including the court system, could be available to the government.
"It may come to a decision like that, but right now, as I see it, people have time and they don’t have all of the information."
He’d also like to hear more from ratepayers in RMs like Archie, which has seven political positions — reeve and six councillors —for 325 residents, working out to one representative for every 46 ratepayers.
The province is hearing from ratepayers that "we’ve got holes in our roads," Lemieux said. "Our community club is run down. Our community needs a real uplift. We have problems with our lagoon, but yet we can’t do anything because we are so small and we could never raise the taxes that great to fix all of it. So we have to become bigger to have a chance at economic development."
The process has also turned some of the "have" municipalities when it comes to economic growth against some of the "have-not" municipalities.
Lemieux said that "if you have an oil well in every corner of the street in your community and you’re rolling in money," that things are good right now, but as a resource economy there is going to be ups and downs in the cycle.
"We want (municipalities) to expand their borders, work with their neighbours, and become very viable geographically and make their neighbours viable geographically."