It appears the number 1,000 isn’t as magical as the provincial government once claimed it to be.
For 11 months, in the face of fierce criticism, former Municipal Government Minister Ron Lemieux remained steadfast that the 92 Manitoba municipalities with a population less than 1,000 would have to merge until they were above the 1,000 threshold.
Now, less than one month after a cabinet shuffle that saw the embattled Lemieux replaced by former finance minister Stan Struthers, the government has softened its hardline approach toward that threshold.
In a letter to the RMs of Albert and Edward dated Oct. 30, Struthers outlines a plan for the two municipalities to amalgamate.
The two municipalities combined would still be below a population of 1,000 —Albert (323) and Edward (574) total 897.
“Both Edward and Albert were being impacted because they were under 1,000,” Struthers said. “They had to get a plan forward and I realize that plan will still leave them under 1,000, but they do meet the requirements of the act and the requirements of our amalgamation initiative.”
It’s a stunning turnabout from the government on an issue that has drawn the ire of municipal leaders across the province.
It’s also not the only one.
In June, Lemieux said there would be no exemptions to the legislation.
Then, in September, he announced the resort communities of Victoria Beach and Dunnottar would be spared.
From Day 1, Lemieux stated there would be no cost savings for the province, but Struthers provided opposition to that claim.
“It will save us some money as well,” Struthers said, “but the real cost savings will come at the local level ... From our perspective, we will have fewer councillors that we will be dealing with.”
While it will save the province some money in the long-term, Struthers estimated that the cost of hiring consultants to carry out the mergers will cost the government approximately $100,000.
Part of the decision to move forward with amalgamations came on the back of a study commissioned by the provincial government and conducted by the Rural Development Institute at Brandon University.
Despite small municipalities dominating the entire “Top 10 Healthy Municipalities” list, the study suggested a move to 18 self-contained labour areas in the province of at least 3,000 residents.
Many of the healthiest communities came from Westman: the town of Oak Lake (383 residents) and Carberry (1,669), village of Wawanesa (562), and the RMs of Sifton (789), Odanah (533) and South Cypress (838).
While the study points to further mergers, Struthers said that won’t happen.
“I’m not expecting any more amalgamation initiatives any time soon,” he said.
The inconsistency and rushed legislation, which has already seen a deadline extended from Dec. 1, has led to confusion and friction among municipalities.
“The amalgamation process has really drawn barriers between people,” RM of Arthur Reeve Jim Trewin said. “It’s a shame that it’s happened like this. All the councils in this area got along very well and when this is all done, I’m not so sure that will be the case and that’s too bad.”
Initially, plans were being drawn up to amalgamate the RMs of Arthur and Brenda and the village of Waskada, but the change now means only Waskada and Brenda will partner with a population of 652.
“It’s left us out in the cold,” Trewin said.
Conversely, the RMs of Albert and Edward are being forced to amalgamate, unless they come up with an alternate plan.
“It’s hasn’t happened yet,” Albert Reeve Tom Campbell said defiantly. “We’re all viable. None of us have debt. We’re not like the provincial government where we are running debt because we don’t do deficit spending, we only spend what we collect.”
Association of Manitoba Municipalities president Doug Dobrowolski went as far as to call the legislation “undemocratic.”
“We’re concerned for the ratepayers and the impact it could have on their tax assessment,” he said.