Province may soften its stand on forced mergers, suggesting municipalities with large numbers of cottagers may be exempted
The NDP government may soften its stand on amalgamation, but will wait for the end of public hearings before making any revisions to its contentious Bill 33, officials say.
Resort communities such as Victoria Beach and Dunnotar have mounted significant protests against the bill, the Municipal Modernization Act, arguing their summer populations are far above the 1,000-resident threshold the province has set as a minimum number. Up until now, the province has been unwilling to consider summer residents when setting the rules for forced mergers.
The president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities said he was surprised to hear the province may allow some exemptions.
“They were adamant from the start on the 1,000 number,” said Doug Dobrowolski.
Dobrowolski met with Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux last week to see if there might be flexibility with other municipalities.
“He (Lemieux) said this is only the beginning and once the bill is passed, there’s going to be room for more discussion,” said Dobrowolski.
“He wants to hear what people have to say at committee meetings, and after those comments there probably will be some amendments come out of there, but he wasn’t positive. He said after committee meetings we’ll sit down and talk again.”
Numerous smaller RMs also have cottage residents who aren’t counted as permanent residents, but pay taxes and vote in municipal elections.
For example, the RM of Harrison in western Manitoba has 865 permanent residents, according to the 2011 Census, but cottagers at Sandy Lake push that number above 1,100, said Reeve Murray Davies.
“I’ve argued this point all along. They (the province) is going by census, not voters,” Davies said. “If they’re going to allow some RMs with cottage development (to stay the same), then they should be looking at the other ones, too.”
Harrison has asked around about possible merger partners, but it can remain financially sustainable on its own, he added.
Dobrowolski’s organization has argued financial viability and sustainability should be the first benchmark for amalgamation considerations rather than an arbitrary population threshold.
That’s one of the arguments Susan Stein, chief administrative officer of the village of Plum Coulee, said she will make when she appears at the Bill 33 hearing this week. She is one of 87 people registered to speak.
“We balance our budget, we feel we are financially viable,” she said. “We don’t think this should be looked at as a flat number of 1,000. That doesn’t say whether you’re viable or not viable financially.”
The latest census counted 843 permanent residents in Plum Coulee, but it’s experiencing signifiant growth and that number is significantly higher now, she said.
About 150 people came to a public meeting Plum Coulee held earlier this year on the matter, and “there was not one person for amalgamation,” she added.
Bill 33 requires all municipalities with fewer than 1,000 permanent residents to submit merger plans by Dec. 1, 2013, with amalgamations done by Jan. 1, 2015.
The NDP government wants Bill 33 passed before the house rises at the end of this week.