“It is going to happen. There is no doubt about it, we want the amalgamations and the boundaries in place for the next election in 2014. It’s not if, it’s not maybe, it’s absolutely.”
— Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux, November 2012
A showdown is brewing between the Selinger government and a growing chorus of rural leaders who are balking at a provincial edict that small municipalities must either amalgamate on their own or be forced to do so.
Last November, many small municipalities across southern Manitoba were caught off guard after the Selinger government said in its throne speech that RMs with a population of less than 1,000 residents will be asked to amalgamate with their neighbours in order to reach the number that represents the legal threshold for a local government under provincial law.
Of Manitoba’s 196 municipal governments, about 92 fail to meet the legal threshold of 1,000 persons.
The province argues that small municipal governments such as Waskada (200), or the RMs of Arthur (413) and Brenda (469) here in Westman, are too small to apply successfully for certain provincial and federal programs.
Back in 2011, the Sun reported that some municipalities had been forced to spend 50 per cent of their budgets on administration. At the same time, as much as $12 million worth of gasoline tax revenue was being left unspent because small RMs did not have the funds to pay for the required yearly financial statements.
But at that point, Lemieux was not pushing for amalgamations. Instead, he said he preferred that municipalities first look at shared services agreements such as a shared administrator, or other infrastructure services. Why the government’s tone changed is not entirely clear, which is why the province’s edict came as such a surprise last November.
Since that announcement, several municipalities have held public meetings in western Manitoba in an attempt to discern constituency feelings on possible amalgamations. Municipalities have until the end of the month to advise the province of their intentions.
But if the early verdict is any indication, rural Manitoba is not in any mood to take marching orders from the province.
Earlier this month, RM of Blanshard Reeve Brent Fortune issued a letter to the Sun that outlined a meeting between 10 municipal corporations and Riding Mountain Progressive Conservative MLA Leanne Rowat, which occurred on Jan. 10.
The municipalities included the RMs of Blanshard, Daly, Hamiota, Harrison, Miniota, Saskatchewan, Strathclair and Woodworth, as well as the towns of Hamiota and Rapid City.
“With much discussion on this subject, all municipalities at the meeting were unanimously opposed to forced amalgamations,” Fortune wrote. “We, as municipal officials cannot see any benefits to amalgamation and our ratepayers and residents should be the people to tell elected councils on which direction they should proceed.”
He also called upon all municipalities that are in opposition to the forced amalgamations to “stand united” against the province.
Then over the weekend, the Winnipeg Free Press published another article on the subject — the RM of Victoria Beach, at the same time one of the smallest and richest municipalities in the province, wants to be exempt from the government edict.
We don’t blame municipal leaders for being angry. The province’s push for integration was never discussed with the municipalities, nor with the Association of Manitoba Municipalities. There simply was no warning.
The NDP’s political base is Winnipeg, not rural Manitoba, though much of the criticism levelled at the government comes from outside the Perimeter Highway. By forcing amalgamations, the NDP can silence a great number of their most vocal critics and further cripple the AMM all in one fell swoop — and do so with impunity.
While the NDP can expect a fight on its hands, at the end of the day, it’s a fight the Selinger government expects to win.