Some municipalities are unhappy with the provincial government’s rationale for amalgamations, suggesting the NDP government is putting a “spin” on the proposed changes.
One of the main reasons Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux cited for the change, that would see municipalities amalgamate across the province until they reached a minimum population of 1,000 people, is that many smaller municipalities have been unable to submit its required financial audits to claim federal gas tax transfers.
“There is no correlation between not getting the gas tax money and the size of your municipality,” RM of Roblin Reeve Tom Mowbray said. “They suggest that if we amalgamated we would have our finances in much better order to collect the gas tax and that’s absolutely not true. There are municipalities of every size that are having problems with the process. The accountants do the audits, we don’t do the audits.”
As of late this summer, Brandon was one of 45 municipalities in the province that hadn’t received gas tax rebates because they had not filed their required audited financial statements with the Department of Local Government, a regulation instituted by the federal government before issueing the funds.
Mowbray said it is as much about new accounting software, that municipalities are still trying to understand and the lack of available auditors.
Mowbray said he isn’t necessarily opposed to the amalgamations, if the government can provide sound reasons for the change — so far, however, he fails to find it.
“To try to do this in a year basically is a pipe dream,” Mowbray said about the government’s plan to amalgamate by 2014. “The government has to get out there and talk to municipalities and find out what they are doing.”
While areas such as Killarney and the RM of Turtle Mountain have chose to amalgamate in the past, Mowbray said there is a big difference between choosing and being forced to partner with another municipality.
“It worked because the people got a vote and they voted to do it,” Mowbray said. “When you force things on people, it’s just not the right way to do it. Unless you can give me some good, clear, honest proof that it works, but I just don’t see it.”
Taxation structures between farm and town residents is another item that would have to be throughly examined before amalgamations are possible. Mowbray said the needs of many rural residents are far different from those of ratepayers within towns or villages. That, coupled with crumbling infrastructure, such as sewer and water, that was installed in many communities in the 1960s would make it challenging to develop a system that is fair between the two ratepayers.
He also balked at Lemieux’s suggestion that the amalgamations will save money, as the RM of Roblin already shares an office, administration and some services with the Village of Cartwright.
“I believe having two (separate) councils gives people a feeling that they have some say in their governance,” Mowbray said. “Governments of all stripes have amalgamated different areas — school divisions, health boards — it doesn’t matter what government it is. There is a theory that bigger is better and that it is more efficient, but I can’t get anyone to prove that to me.
“I never think it is good to move the seat of governance further from the people. People need to have a say in their local politics.”
Lemieux told the Winnipeg Free Press recently that, “Instead of competing with each other, you could have two, three, four municipalities together and the size of (the new entity) would give them more clout.”
But RM of Edward Coun. Debbie McMechan, who spoke to the amalgamation issue at the Association of Manitoba Municipalities convention in Winnipeg this week, doesn’t agree.
“Where we used to be 18 votes on the floor, we will now be six votes,” said McMechen about the potential of the RM of Edward, which has 574 residents, amalgamating with two nearby RMs.
“It’s going to change the ability of small municipalities to get their voice heard by the provincial or federal governments,” she added. “I don’t believe there is any cost savings. It’s going to mean that we don’t have representation at the local level and if we ever let that be lost it would be a terrible thing.”
McMechan also challenged Lemieux after she said he suggested that bigger municipalities would have been beneficial during the 2011 flood efforts.
“I stood up and said I thought that was unfair criticism,” McMechan said. “I saw some of my fellow councillors, reeves, CAOs, and people that work for the municipality working in a heroic capacity during the flood and to say that they could have done better if their central office was located somewhere else just isn’t fair.”
Throughout the convention, she said government officials told her it was time to “move forward,” but she stressed that RMs for many years have partnered in situations where it is beneficial. She cited the Oil Producing Municipalities of Manitoba, which includes about 20 municipalities that all have oil activity coming together to work as a group to lobby government officials in area needs such as infrastructure.
“We are quite capable, when we see a benefit to our rate payers, to joining other municipalities,” McMechan said. “It’s backwards economic development because you are saying to potential investors, potential business people or residents that this municipality has stopped growing. If (the RM’s) local government leaves to a centralized area, it’s really a rural recession that you are promoting.”
She estimates an amalgamation with two other RMs in her area would mean that six councillors would represent an area of approximately 2,230 square kilometres, or 860 square miles.
“We’re an important component of the province,” McMechan said. “And I don’t believe that this is right, or in the best interests of the people I represent.”