We happen to agree with a slew of Westman leaders who say that the province’s plan to force amalgamations on municipalities with under 1,000 residents is a rather poor idea.
But that doesn’t mean at least a few municipalities don’t stand to benefit from such a union.
As the Sun reported yesterday, the representatives of 35 of 37 western municipalities who attended a recent meeting in Hartney signed a letter saying the amalgamation plan is ill-conceived and rushed.
For a province that can’t seem to keep its own spending in check, it’s downright hypocritical for any Manitoba minister to argue that smaller municipalities must amalgamate simply because they can’t submit financial audits to access gas-tax revenues.
Just because they cannot necessarily afford to pay for such an audit doesn’t mean their books aren’t balanced. The fact that the province has not acknowledged this has only increased the NDP’s appearance of being completely out of touch with rural Manitoba and the challenges small communities face.
However, the sheer number of municipal governments in western Manitoba that have fallen below that 1,000-person threshold is quite striking. A graphic created by the Sun, which appeared in yesterday’s paper, made it very clear just how much of Westman would be affected if the province moves ahead with its plans.
In our little corner of the province alone, there are 22 municipal governments with under 1,000 people, another 22 with less than 750 people, and 26 more municipalities that hold less than 500 residents, with the smallest — Waskada — having only 183 people.
We note that at least a few of these municipalities, in spite of their low tax base, are hardly poor, what with oil revenues flooding into the region. And as RM of Cornwallis Reeve Reg Atkinson noted, there are already relationships cultivated and established between municipalities in the region for resource sharing and planning.
But this is rural decline in its most obvious form — population decline — and the province is not without reason to suggest that municipalities at least consider amalgamation.
What seems to be the biggest irritant for municipal leaders, however, isn’t the fact that the province is suggesting that communities consider joining forces to improve services and access to gas taxes. It’s the fact that the province is using a hammer to suddenly enforce a piece of provincial legislation that, to date, has never been enforced. No just reason for this sudden change in policy has been given, and yet Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux seems hell bent on enforcement without nuance.
No wonder the municipalities are up in arms. This is not the way to encourage co-operation.
Before the province continues down this slippery slope — pitting itself against a bunch of angry municipalities — it may want to rethink its strategy.