The voluntary merger that created the Municipality of Shoal Lake saves taxpayers $60,000 annually and improved local government efficiency
Don Yanick is getting a lot of calls from municipal officials across the province these days about the hot-button issue of amalgamation.
And when asked if it was worth it, the mayor of the Municipality of Shoal Lake points to $60,000 in annual savings and a much more efficient local government.
“Right off the top, we figured it was over $30,000 savings in councillors’ indemnities,” said Yanick, the former reeve of the rural municipality, which merged with the town of Shoal Lake just over two years ago.
“It would be an average of $6,000 to $7,000 per councillor.”
The merged municipality — which no longer needs a reeve and has six councillors instead of a combined 10 — saved another $20,000 by reducing four full-time positions to 3.4 and $10,000 more from a smaller council budget for travel and other expenses.
Saving money wasn’t the driver behind their decision to combine two municipal governments into one, just the bonus. The real reason for getting together was to improve services for the 1,250 residents they serve, Yanick said.
“We decided if we wanted to be more efficient, it would probably be a good thing to do,” he said.
For example, a half-dozen homeowners living just beyond the town’s boundary could never get water and sewer service because the town and the RM couldn’t agree on how to share the cost.
“We could never seem to come up with an agreement that we were both comfortable with,” says Yanick, who was first elected reeve in 1988.
Amalgamation got the ball rolling — and the water flowing, he said.
Similarly, around the time of the amalgamation, a developer, sought and received approval for water and sewer service for a development on the west side of the lake. If they hadn’t amalgamated, “we’d probably still be discussing it,” said Yanick.
Then there were the residents living on both sides of a former boundary road who jointly approached the newly merged council asking for street lights.
All it took was one meeting to discuss it, some consultation with Manitoba Hydro, and a second meeting to give it the go-ahead.
“It took two weeks to make that decision,” said Yanick, adding it likely would have taken six months prior to amalgamation.
“We’d have had to go to a joint council meeting. And then the joint council would have had to get all the information. And then once you had it, even if you were good to go, you’d still have had to wait for your regular council meeting to make a final decision because joint councils can recommend, they can’t make final decisions.”
The new efficiency sometimes caught residents off guard — like the icy winter day the town’s sanding truck turned up in the small village of Oakburn.
“The guy who was doing the sanding phoned me on a cellphone and said, ‘There’s people opening their doors and wondering what we’re doing here,’” he said.
“We could never do that before because we could never agree on what the fair price was (for use of town equipment).”
The merger also dropped the town’s mill rate by eight mills, the RMs by two. A $60,000 surplus might not sound like a lot of money to some, “but for a small municipality it is,” said Yanick.
Shoal Lake’s story is one of five “amalgamation success stories” posted on the website of the Department of Local Government. Last week, the NDP government introduced legislation requiring the 92 municipalities with fewer than 1,000 residents to submit amalgamation plans by Dec. 1, with the mergers slated to take place Jan. 1, 2015 (following municipal elections in October 2014).
The legislative move was denounced by the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, which doesn’t object to amalgamation, but says it should be voluntary.
“This bill threatens to not only damage the relationship between our two orders of government, but to tear apart communities that have built their partnerships over decades, not only because of what is in the bill, but because of the undemocratic way it is being forced on our members,” association president Doug Dobrowolski said in a press release.
Many municipalities under the 1,000 threshold “are functioning very well” and “since the number of bridges, community centres, and kilometres of road repairs won’t change with amalgamation, there is no logical reason to force a municipality to go through a complicated process that may result in higher costs,” he said.
Four other Manitoba communities have merged since 2003: the municipalities of Killarney-Turtle Mountain, Gimli, and Brokenhead, along with the towns of Powerview-Pinefalls.