Municipal leaders say most Manitobans don’t realize what’s at stake as the province pushes municipalities with fewer than 1,000 residents to amalgamate.
“It’s like Bipole III,” said Doug Dobrowolski, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.
“If you ask the average person on the street, ‘What is that?’ they can’t tell you. It’s the same with amalgamation. Unless they’re following it, they won’t know what it is.”
Some municipal leaders argue amalgamation won’t produce significant savings and will reduce the effectiveness of local government. Angry mayors and reeves met behind closed doors with the provincial minister of Local Government earlier this month and gave Ron Lemieux an earful.
“Some of the language was pretty hot,” said Dobrowolski. “It’s emotional, it’s their identity and their history.”
The province wants municipalities with fewer than 1,000 residents to amalgamate prior to the next round of civic elections in October 2014. That would affect 92 of the province’s 196 municipalities.
But many municipal leaders want it delayed until after the elections, so residents can make their views known.
“I just feel in my own mind, let them (incoming councils) finish the puzzle, so to speak,” said Dobrowolski.
“Let them put the pieces together because they’re going to be governing under those new rules, not the ones who are leaving.”
He said his association is not opposed to amalgamation, but wants more time so opponents can make their case and also to deal with the complexities of merging municipalities. Lemieux agreed “the timelines are tight,” but said they can be met.
“My department has dealt with other amalgamations,” he said. “If you really want to go ahead and amalgamate, with all the staff and support we’re providing for this, it can happen.”
Lemieux estimates that about half of affected councils have begun talks with neighbouring municipalities.
“They haven’t come up to a final decision yet as to who they’re going to partner with, but half have really done their due diligence and they’re working hard,” he said.
The others are either looking for guidance on the process, or refusing to start.
“I’d say about 25 per cent are resisting,” Lemieux said. “Some may be waiting for the legislation, to see if I’m serious about this.”
But Lemieux said he told the municipal leaders he met with “in no uncertain terms… that the province is moving ahead with amalgamation,” he said.
“We’re not cracking a U-turn on this.”
Lemieux said he will table an amendment to the Municipal Act in May that will make it a legal requirement that councils declare their merger partners.
He also said he’s been urged to consider raising the threshold for amalgamation.
“I’ve been asked why is the threshold 1,000 and told it should be 5,000 — (that) it makes sense to go much larger or we’ll be back doing this in another 10 years,” he said.