Westman communities were blindsided yesterday after Manitoba Hydro announced it will close a dozen rural services centres by spring, with another dozen set to close by early 2017.
Offices in Erickson, Carberry, MacGregor, Reston and Somerset are in the first round of closures.
When both rounds of cuts are complete, Erickson’s closest regional centre will be Neepawa, more than 60 kilometres away.
“Loss of service in any small community is a concern for everyone living there,” Mayor Val Soltys said. “The impact it has on people is far-reaching — those employed are going to be directly impacted and then access to the service is going to be much more difficult for the residents of the area.”
The move is expected to save Hydro $2 million a year, according to the release, with the first stage of closures beginning this January.
The push toward centralization comes as a result of fewer and fewer customers actually needing to visit the office in person, Hydro president Scott Thomson said.
“Manitobans are changing the way they do business with us. With fewer and fewer customers using local offices to make bill payments or access other services, the time was right for us to take the next steps in streamlining our district office model,” he said. “Moving to a modern, central hub customer service model will allow us to be more efficient, providing more consistent service at a reduced cost and ultimately passing those savings on to customers.”
Since 2007, Hydro says it has seen a steady decline in customer transactions at district offices and a corresponding shift to using the larger regional centres or making bill payments 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.
Soltys said many people in Erickson still use the office and prefer the face-to-face communication. There’s also the issue of reliable Internet service in some of the rural areas.
“The ability to be connected to good Internet service in our area is not always there,” she said. “And not everyone has the ability to travel the 40-kilometre radius. Every service is important to the ongoing viability of rural communities.”
Offices in Minnedosa, Hamiota, Gladstone, Roblin, Birtle, Treherne, Shoal Lake and Souris are slated to close by March 2017.
Of the five community leaders contacted by the Brandon Sun yesterday, all were learning of the news for the first time.
“It’s tough to hear it from the media before you hear it from the source,” Soltys said.
Those sentiments were echoed by Carberry Mayor Wayne Blair.
“It’s pretty bad when you hear about something like this because someone from the news media phoned you,” Blair said. “To me, that’s a big shock.”
Most were surprised the communities’ councils weren’t informed that the Crown corporation was looking at centralizing and potentially closing several rural sites.
Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said the “plans were developed in response to Manitoba Hydro’s operational needs and future plans to serve our customers, so in such circumstances it would not be our practice to consult with the community.”
While no one will be laid off as a result of the closures, employees will have to report to one of the 16 existing rural centres.
“You’re never very happy to hear that something in your town is leaving because that means jobs are leaving and maybe people leaving,” Minnedosa Mayor Ray Orr said, adding that a lot can happen between now and 2017.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 2, 2013