WINNIPEG — The Selinger government is backing down on its shotgun-wedding approach that tiny municipalities should merge with their bigger neighbours.
Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux said Tuesday his officials have drafted amendments to Bill 33 that would allow resort communities like Victoria Beach and Dunnottar to stay as they are.
“I’m encouraged right now that this might be possible,” Lemieux said in an interview.
The NDP’s change of heart comes as public hearings on the bill are expected to begin on Saturday. So far, 87 people have signed up to speak; 59 from outside Winnipeg.
It also comes as the NDP, under a deal with the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, wants to see Bill 33 passed before the legislature rises as early as Sept. 13.
Lemieux said the goal of the amendments is to recognize that the population in resort municipalities climbs in the summer months and that because of those seasonal residents, their tax base and municipal operations are healthy.
He also said he does not want to see these municipalities incur the cost of hiring lawyers to fight the bill.
He added the amendments would be worded with the input of those municipalities, which also include Oak Lake and Onanole near Clear Lake.
As originally proposed by the NDP almost a year ago, the province-wide plan would see municipalities under 1,000 permanent population merge with larger ones to reduce the cost of local government.
Affected municipalities would have to submit merger plans by Dec. 1. The plans would take effect Jan. 1, 2015.
Lemieux had said earlier there was nothing in the legislation that would grant him the power to pick and choose which municipalities should amalgamate.
“There are no exemptions. There are none. Zero. Nada. Squat. Nothing. There’s no magic wand either,” he said.
He said on Tuesday that the government is now prepared to listen to avoid an unneeded fight.
“I’m a little encouraged that this could be done,” he said.
Victoria Beach Reeve Tom Farrell said he welcomed Lemieux’s olive branch. Victoria Beach was under threat of being absorbed by the larger RM of Alexander, a merger many feared would spell the end of the unique summer community that restricts vehicle traffic in July and August.
“I’m hoping that there’s an opening for us,” Farrell said. “I don’t want to pick a fight with them if I can get what I want.”
About 200 people in Dunnottar held a rally Sunday to protest the bill. Under Bill 33, the Lake Winnipeg village would merge with the RM of St. Andrews.
Farrell said he believes what turned the corner was that many cottagers against Bill 33 besieged their NDP MLAs.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives launched a failed attempt Tuesday to delay debate on Bill 33 for six months.
Leader Brian Pallister said the only way Lemieux could repair the damage caused by his handling of Bill 33 is to shelve it.
“It’s almost one of those you can’t-get-there-from-here-you’ve-got-to-start somewhere-else kind of situations,” Pallister said. “Did they paint the water with antagonistic colours? I think they did. No wonder municipal governments have reacted the way they did.”
» Winnipeg Free Press
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 4, 2013