WASKADA — The message from reeves and mayors to Manitoba Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux was crystal clear on Wednesday: forced amalgamations will destroy rural Manitoba.
At the Association of Manitoba Municipalities Western District meeting in Waskada, municipal officials launched warfare on the provincial government’s plan to force municipalities to amalgamate until they reach a minimum population of 1,000.
“Somebody has to be willing to fall on their sword, when this inevitably destroys rural Manitoba,” RM of Edward Coun. Debbie McMechan said after the meeting. “I believe we are being portrayed as a group of people that don’t know what is best for us, but the truth of the matter is: I see what a beautiful thing that has been established (through the partnerships of existing RMs). People in an ivory tower in Winnipeg are drawing lines in the sand that is going to destroy it all.”
McMechan borrowed a quote from another councillor when describing the municipal level of government in Manitoba. She called it a delicate spider web with each silk thread spanning outward representing a unique partnership between municipalities, some spanning decades, designed to serve the community at large.
“Those lines will be severed and having someone come in and arbitrarily slash those partnerships that have served people and communities that might not have other alternatives, is just a tragedy.”
Lemieux championed the notion that creating larger municipalities will allow for greater economic development, but the numbers just don’t add up, according to McMechan. Of the 41 municipal governments in the Western District, 25 are below the 1,000 population threshold. It’s also an area of the province where local economies have exploded on the strength of the agricultural and the oil sectors.
“We want to preserve our own town and we’ve worked really hard at that,” McMechan said about Pierson, which is in the RM of Edward. “Being able to control our own area and make decisions about what is good for us is important. People in my area are more worried about reverse economic development.”
The Brandon Sun was not allowed to attend the meeting as AMM executive director Joe Masi stopped a reporter at the door after he was pointed out by Lemieux.
“We wanted to have frank discussions and we wanted the minister to be up front so that’s why we blocked the media out,” AMM president Doug Dobrowolski said.
He can’t understand why the province is meddling at the municipal government level. The problem, Dobrowolski says, continues to be the hurried nature of the amalgamations and the magic 1,000 number.
Prior to the meeting, Lemieux took questions about the amalgamations.
“I believe many (municipalities) are missing the economic development training that is going right by their town and community,” Lemieux said. “For 10 years we’ve been promoting regionalization.”
This spring, the minister said he will enact new legislation that will require municipalities to meet the population threshold.
“My department has said that the timelines are tight, but that it can be done,” Lemieux said about the plans to amalgamate before the next municipal elections in 2014.
He also seemed careful not to suggest it’s a hard deadline, consistently starting all answers regarding the timeline with “today.”
“Today, if you asked me if I’m going to extend the timelines, my answer is no,” Lemieux said. “There is nothing magic about a number. I mean, it’s not a race to 1,000. It’s trying to get people to think, where do you want to be in five years?”
According to Lemieux, some municipalities are using more than half of their revenue to pay for administration and others are sharing a single CAO between four municipalities. Another challenge is finding people to step forward and serve on municipal councils.
While the majority of the reasons for amalgamations that Lemieux stated have been brought forward by his department before, there was a new reason why municipalities should amalgamate.
Lemieux said the Oil Producing Municipalities of Manitoba, an association of 20 municipalities that are at the epicentre of the oil and gas exploration in the province, aren’t doing a very good job. He believes the amalgamations would unlock more investment from the oil sector and that having so many municipalities, each with different rules and regulations, creates “red tape.”
“Some of these municipalities are so small that they are having difficulty managing their own municipalities and it’s creating huge roadblocks of investment from the oilpatch,” Lemieux said.
He said the oil companies are pleading with the government for amalgamations so they can deal with one entity.
It’s laughable, according to Waskada Mayor Gary Williams.
“I think the oil business is driven by where the oil is and where the infrastructure is,” said Williams, whose council has overseen one of the biggest oil booms in the province.
The Waskada mayor said they have more problems with provincial red tape and lack of infrastructure dollars that are leaving roads in the area in shambles.
RM of Argyle Reeve Bob Conibear said the temperature in the room was heated during the back-and-forth debate with the minister.
“I think their mind is made up,” Conibear said. “I don’t feel we’re being listened to. Bill 18, the anti-bullying bill, is alive and well because they are saying ‘come hell or high water, we’re going to do it.’”
Conibear, whose RM is above the threshold, would like to see the government offer some incentives and allow municipalities to amalgamate voluntarily. Once there is a proven template, he said, there will be others that follow, but right now the timelines are unrealistic.
“Bigger isn’t better,” said Conibear, who has seen the regional health authorities continue to expand since he has been in municipal politics. “It creates community animosity. You get two towns in different areas and suddenly the bigger community is going to get it and the (provincial government) is pitting community against community.
“I guess we have two provinces — the province of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba — and we’re being ignored.”
RM of Cameron Reeve Wayne Drummond said this will be the last term he will serve if municipalities are forced to amalgamate.
“We’re already married we just don’t have a ring,” Drummond said. “We share a common office (with Hartney) and staff.”
But even if Hartney and the RM of Cameron were to merge they still wouldn’t meet the threshold, meaning they would be forced to amalgamate further. Merging with other municipalities will most likely create a scenario where there are two RMs and two communities in one municipality.
“Two towns, two rinks and you’re going to share services,” Drummond said. “Which rink is going? Because someone is going to lose.”
Drummond said he’s afraid some places will lose their identity.
“I’ve been on council 35 years and it’s like I just threw a lifetime away,” he said. “You get in a case of some of these RMs that might get carved up four ways and it will be like you never existed.”
Ultimately, protecting their identity might be the hill municipal leaders die on, as some indicated they are prepared to go to jail before they will sign an amalgamation paper.
“Small is beautiful,” McMechan said. “This is going to define the way we think about ourselves and the relationship we have with our government.”
“It’s going to, perhaps forever, destroy the trust and respect of the partnership between the municipalities, the AMM and the Department of Local Government that was the envy of other provinces.”
FEW ELECTORAL CONSEQUENCES FOR NDP: POLLSTER
One of the province’s top pollsters said the province might have proceeded with more caution on the issue of amalgamating municipalities had there been any impact in the political win-loss column.
Curtis Brown of Probe Research said the extreme urban-rural split when it comes time to cast ballots within the province means the NDP can proceed with relative impunity.
“I don’t know if there is a great deal of political downside for the NDP to do what it is doing,” Brown said. “There are some practical arguments they make in favour of it ... the chances of them paying a real serious political consequence in those areas where this is happening just isn’t there.”
In the last election, the NDP captured 27 of the 31 seats available in Winnipeg. The landslide victory points to a common theme that Brown said has been backed up time and time again by polling.
“The most obvious example of that is the fact that the surveys that we do regarding political preference consistently show a huge difference between Winnipeg and the rest of the province,” Brown said. “It’s something where if it affected voters in Winnipeg they would be proceeding pretty cautiously and pretty worried about losing support in those places.”
The NDP have little to lose following Minister of Local Government Ron Lemieux’s statement that he will change legislation in the province that will require any municipality under the population threshold of 1,000 to amalgamate until it reaches the threshold.
Brown said in the last two decades, political polarization has widened as there tends to be a more right-of-centre ideology in rural areas compared to left-of-centre ideology in urban centres.
In places like Saskatchewan, Brown said the Saskatchewan Party has done an effective job of breaking down the traditional urban-versus-rural split, demonstrating that the more conservative Sask. Party will govern with cities in mind.
It’s something the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba has tried to do with little success, according to Brown.
It’s also something that can disenfranchise some voters in areas where they don’t feel their issues are a priority.
“It can lead to frustration on the part of those voters that tend to be on the losing end,” Brown said.
The “forced amalgamations” only create more divisive politics in the province, said Arthur-Virden Progressive Conservative MLA Larry Maguire. He believes the government is using the issue to sidetrack all voters from the real issues in the province.
“It’s just a way to distract away from the problems of their own debt and lack of infrastructure rehabilitation from the last flood,” Maguire said.
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