The provincial government may be drowning in red ink, but it’s rural Manitobans who are bearing the brunt of the NDP’s poor decisions and fiscal mismanagement.
One day after news broke that Manitoba’s provincial government posted a $580-million deficit in the last fiscal year — $120 million more than the NDP initially predicted — Manitoba Hydro announced it would be closing 24 service centres across the province over the next four years “to improve customer service and reduce costs.”
According to a press release issued yesterday afternoon, Hydro said it would save $2 million per year by closing the offices and consolidating them into regional centres, as well as avoiding some $50 million in future upgrades the offices would require.
And with half of the future closures occurring in Westman, our little corner of the province comes out especially bad in this whole situation.
As of March 2014, rural offices in Erickson, Elie, Carberry, MacGregor, Reston, St. Martin, Somerset, Leaf Rapids, Carman, Morris, Niverville and Piney will be shut down. And by March 2017, offices in Minnedosa, Hamiota, Gladstone, Altona, Roblin, St. Pierre, Birtle, Treherne, Shoal Lake, Lundar, Souris and Stonewall will also close.
As a result, rural services will be consolidated in 16 communities across the province, including the Westman communities of Neepawa, Russell, Virden, Dauphin, Swan River, Brandon and Killarney.
The first stage of closures will begin this January, when customer service counters in the 24 affected district offices will close. Customers who wish to pay their bills, make service inquiries or request electrical wiring permits in person will have to visit one of the regional service centres that remain open.
Since 2007, Hydro says it has seen a steady decline in customer transactions at district offices and a corresponding shift to using the larger regional centres or making bill payments either online or by phone. In addition, many customer services, such as applications for electrical permits, are now available online through the corporation’s website.
Hydro customer service and distribution vice-president Brent Reed suggested that even with these consolidations, “field staff will continue to be able to respond to the majority of calls within 45 to 60 minutes.”
There’s a comforting thought when your lights go out.
Hydro’s announcement follows similar closures of government offices made public earlier this year. As the Sun previously reported, the province announced last April that it expected to save $1.49 million per year by merging government offices and providing more online applications and tools. Affected communities include Minnedosa, Virden, Birtle, Treherne, Neepawa and Russell, which will lose everything from engineering positions and offices under Conservation and Water Stewardship, to GO and MAFRI offices.
Meanwhile, the government continues its Quixote-like crusade to force rural municipalities to amalgamate, whether it makes good financial sense or not. Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux continues to insist that these amalgamations will make municipalities more efficient, translating into more money invested into local services and economic development.
We are aware that rural Manitoba communities are having some difficulties keeping their population numbers up. And given the government’s deepening red ink as the NDP finds new ways to overspend existing and future tax dollars, it’s not surprising that the province has been forced to cut programs and services in the province.
But as we have said before, why must this government continue to cripple rural Manitoba? Yet the cash is always at the ready to spend on an extended Bipole III line, a new football stadium, the Convention Centre expansion, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and a shiny new Manitoba Hydro office building downtown — among other expensive projects.
Even more galling, in our opinion, is that in all these apparent cost-saving measures, the government has clearly stated that no government workers will lose their jobs as part of these office closures.
The NDP can try to spin this all they want, but the reality is that rural Manitobans will ultimately have less timely access to government services.
The government’s message to rural communities has become rather clear — you’re on your own.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 2, 2013