Many small municipalities were caught off guard after the idea of amalgamation was mentioned last week by the provincial government.
The message was loud and clear in the Nov. 19 throne speech, municipalities that have a population of less than 1,000 residents will be asked to amalgamate with neighbours to reach the number that represents the legal threshold for a local government under provincial law.
Mayor of Waskada Gary Williams said municipalities received no warning that the province was thinking about amalgamating municipalities and doesn’t understand why they would push for the idea.
"I don’t know why they would want to mettle with something that is working," Williams said.
"Why are they worried about this?"
Waskada, which has a population around 200 according to the 2011 Statistics Canada census, is in the midst of an economic boon.
Williams said that although the municipality might not have 1,000 residents living in the area, they have more than 1,000 people working in and around the community. The increase in traffic and boon in the community is a result of oilfield activity. The activity has also created a wide variety of logistical and infrastructure issues — issues that Williams believes should be dealt with at the local level.
"We’ve had to double our council meetings because we couldn’t deal with all of the issues that we have and if we were to try to compress it further because we were part of some sort of super agency, I think our growth and the viability of our community would be greatly affected," Williams said.
Surrounded by the RMs of Arthur (413 people) and Brenda (469), Waskada would have to amalgamate with both RMs to reach the 1,000 resident threshold, providing they amalgamate with their neighbours rather than another municipality that might be better suited to share their needs.
Williams said Waskada already shares an office and adminstration staff with the RM of Brenda. And the two partner to run the landfill and often share equipment when necessary, but he doesn’t see a need to amalgamate and is concerned about how amalgamations will affect the identity of the community.
"We currently have a lot of community spirit here (in Waskada) and we do a lot of things with our volunteers," Williams said.
"If they take our identity away from us and our people have to start travelling for services and we as a local government can’t help to steer the process then we’re going to lose a huge amount of our volunteer effort."
Williams believes the amalgamations will create another layer of bureaucracy in the province.
He also doesn’t buy the government’s position that many municipalities have struggled to submit financial audits on time, delaying access to gas-tax revenues, which are based on per capita payments and are relatively small, he said.
"If we ran our council business based on our gas tax we would consider ourselves pretty small minded," Williams said. "We’re running a responsible organization here and for them to mettle here and the reasons they gave, that we’re going to save, I don’t see it. For this to be turned into some sort of super board, well, they tend to be pretty ineffective and they don’t respond to the needs of the community they are supposed to."
Instead, Williams believes the amalgamations are a way of silencing mayors and reeves in small municipalities, who at times, have been the most vocal opposition to the provincial government.
"I think they want to reduce the number of people in the AMM because they traditionally have been in the face of the provincial government," Williams said.
And he used the premier’s own words to support his opposition, after NDP Premier Greg Selinger said the province needed "more wiggle room to deal with reality," when it was revealed the government wouldn’t reach its goal of balancing the budget by 2014.
"We have a surplus and operate well within our budget," Williams said.
"Mr. Selinger said this week that we have balanced budget legislation, but (the province) needs a little wiggle room, while (Waskada) doesn’t need any wiggle room other than for him to wiggle out of our way."
A quick look around Westman shows many municipalities are under the 1,000 resident threshold — Albert (323), Woodworth (860), Sifton (789), Morton (698), Roblin (932), Silver Creek (460), Harrison (842), Langford (767), Cartwright (308) and Lansdowne (723).
Across the province, 92 of the 196 municipalities are below the threshold.
The RM of Pipestone (1,447) is in a position to refrain from amalgamation and Reeve Ross Tycoles said he was also surprised by the provincial announcement.
"I don’t know what the purpose is yet," Tycoles said, adding that it will be an issue that is hotly debated at the Association of Manitoba Municipalities’ annual convention beginning today in Winnipeg.
"It was a bit of a bombshell," Tycoles said. "I think it’s going to be a hard sell."
Although the RM of Pipestone is above the threshold, Tycoles said council will have to weigh the idea of amalgamating with some municipalities that are under the 1,000 resident number.
But he also said that it isn’t an easy process as trading areas, shared services and infrastructure needs are all issues that would have to be worked out and in some cases it might be better to break up municipalities based on geography.
"It’s going to affect a lot of people and the autonomy of the people is huge," Tycoles said. "If you cut the councillors in half, then there are going to be people that don’t feel they are represented."
On Friday, Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux hardened the government’s stance regarding amalgamation.
"It is going to happen. There is no doubt about it, we want the amalgamations and the boundaries in place for the next election in 2014," Lemieux said. "It’s not if, it’s not maybe, it’s absolutely. And can we take up this challenge to make rural Manitoba a better place for us all?"
Lemieux said he will speak tomorrow at the AMM’s annual convention and will be "laying out a framework" for the municipalities to begin the process of amalgamation.
"Having municipalities amalgamate with one, two or three other municipalities that they feel they can work with that it will meet the legislation and improve what they are able to do — providing services for their constituents and to be able to participate in the modern economy," Lemieux said.
The amalgamations are going to open doors to provide better services, economic opportunities and grant money, according to Lemieux.
He’s also heard from municipalities that can’t afford the upkeep on the equipment they own, reducing their ability to provide essential services.
"I know that the communities are rich in history, culture and folklore and this can’t be lost and nor will it be lost," Lemieux said.
"But people are expecting a service to be delivered by their government and they expect that service whether they are sitting in Winnipeg or a rural municipality, and everyone expects that service is there for them and we know that that service is not being delivered."
While the idea is still in the policy stage right now, "the department right now is putting together a game plan in concert with AMM on where we go from here," Lemieux said, adding that there is no question that amalgamations will become a reality. "I think that everyone has gotten the message that amalgamations are going to happen," he said.
Furthermore, it’s a question of respecting the democratic process, Lemieux said, as many municipalities have few or no races for mayor, reeve and councilor positions.
"Many of those municipalities have people that are acclaimed," Lemieux said. "Democracy quite frankly is suffering as a result of a lacklustre approach to municipal politics. You have mayors and reeves being acclaimed with no election and it’s not a healthy environment for democracy overall."