Association of Manitoba Municipalities head says amalgamation is a complex process that can’t be rushed
The province has told municipalities to get on with amalgamation, rejecting their plea for more time for orderly planning.
“It’s an expedited process,” said Doug Dobrowolski, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.
“We’re very concerned that the public is not going to have an opportunity to voice their concern here.”
But that argument didn’t sway Premier Greg Selinger and Ron Lemieux, the minister responsible for local government, who told Dobrowolski that revised boundaries must be in place for the October 2014 municipal elections.
“In reality, we have a year and a half to do this,” said Dobrowolski, noting campaign financing rules require everything to be in place by June 2014.
But officials from many rural municipalities have said that isn’t enough time to hold public meetings, meet with other councils and do all the required administrative work — which includes merging assets and debts, as well as reviewing or reworking service agreements.
Mistakes will be costly, Dobrowolski warned.
“This will have an effect on ratepayers and an effect on taxation,” he said. “We want to make sure everything is done right, not, ‘Hurry up and get this done.’”
The province has decided to enforce a rule in the Municipal Act, which states municipalities must have at least 1,000 permanent residents. There are 92 of the province’s 196 municipalities which don’t meet that standard.
While his association isn’t opposed to amalgamation, the decree is ruffling a lot of feathers, Dobrowolski said.
“We’ve got the full gamut here,” he said. “There’s a certain percentage that are going to say ‘over my dead body’ type of thing. There’s some saying, ‘If we had more time, yes, we’ll probably do it.’ And there’s some that are going to go (forward with amalgamating) right away.”
Municipalities with less than 1,000 residents were sent letters asking them to amalgamate with neighbouring ones, and given until Jan. 31 to declare their intentions.
The provincial government says it will help with the process, offering councils and their staff guidebooks on how to proceed, hosting special meetings, and providing “amalgamation teams” of provincial support staff to help in the process.
In a recent CBC interview, Lemieux said he fully expected that “some will dig the heels in early.”
“To me this is just the beginning,” he said. “I’m asking that people give this amalgamation opportunity a chance.”
But critics argue the province should have consulted, instead of issuing orders.
“It should be left up to the grassroots to decide, not to the provincial government,” said Brent Fortune, reeve of the RM of Blanshard.
“There probably is a place for amalgamation, but it is being forced upon us and that’s what we’re against.”
Fortune said he met with officials from seven RMs (Harrison, Minota, Daly, Hamiota, Strathclair, Woodworth, and Saskatchewan) plus the towns of Rapid City and Hamiota in mid-January and none are considering amalgamation at this time, he said.
“We can’t see any benefits in it,” he said.
But Fortune said he’ll attend upcoming seminars this month to learn more about the process.
“You can’t put your head in the sand,” he said. “You’ve got to know about all the pros and cons, and be gathering all the information you can.”