Fewer and larger rural municipalities are on the horizon with last week’s throne speech calling for mandatory amalgamation of the province’s smallest local governments.
Ninety-two of Manitoba’s 197 municipalities no longer meet the Municipal Act’s population threshold of 1,000. Many of these now have fewer than 500 constituents and some even less than 200.
Yet, with a system of governance unchanged in almost a century, many retain full slates of councillors, meaning the local government is, in marked ways indeed “close to the people.”
The five-member council for the village of Waskada, where the 2011 Census revealed a population now at 183, has one elected official for every 37 residents.
The province said last week it wants those with populations under 1,000 to begin engaging neighbouring RMs and to work towards voluntary amalgamation. If that doesn’t happen, the provincial government will take steps to make it mandatory.
Doug Dobrowolski, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM) said in an interview that while the throne speech announcement was unexpected, it’s not a surprise.
“We have had discussions with government over the last couple of years saying municipalities should maybe look at this. It’s been nothing really formal but the hints were there.”
The matter will be on the table at the AMM convention taking place in Winnipeg this week, he said. He said while some councils are bound to push back on this, he thinks the majority will accept that change is coming.
Even before last week’s announcement, a number of councils were already talking, he said.
“I know municipalities are talking about it,” he said. Many neighbouring councils are already working closely together too.
“They can’t all afford everything so they’re doing things regionally,” he said.
Dobrowolski said the AMM is leaving it up to municipalities now to figure out how to make this happen.
“AMM is not pushing this,” he said. “But we’re not objecting to it. At the end of the day the municipalities themselves will have to sit down and find out if it makes sense to amalgamate.”
It certainly did in Killarney-Turtle Mountain, which amalgamated seven years ago, said Rick Pauls, mayor of Killarney-Turtle Mountain. Other voluntary amalgamations have included Shellmouth-Boulton and RM of Gimli and Town of Gimli.
Pauls said their own merger produced a much more efficient form of local governance that’s expanded capacity for tackling larger projects. They’re no longer bogged down with endless negotiations between two councils, he said.
Currently, the council is embarking on a new 44-lot development adjacent to the town. It would have taken much longer if they’d had to negotiate a bunch of cost-sharing and service agreements, he said.
“Under the old system we’d never have been able to provide something like that without that negotiation between two councils, back and forth, and that gets cumbersome,” he said.
Two municipalities can also contribute and save up more cash for special projects than one entity, he added.
Statistics gleaned from municipal financial audited statements also show economy of scale for small centres are not optimal, with general government administration eating up as much as 20 per cent or more of their operating budgets.
“That’s crazy,” said Pauls. But money shouldn’t be the argument to use for — or against — amalgamating, he added.
“I don’t think anyone should amalgamate because we’re going to save a pile of money,” Pauls said. “What you’re doing is streamlining government and making more efficiencies. When it comes to doing larger-scale projects you have the the capability of doing it.”
Duncan Stewart, reeve of the RM of Brenda (pop. 469), and one of the smaller RMs that will be affected by mandatory amalgamation says he agrees its time to put the talk into action.
“We could cut down on councillors quite a bit,” he said, adding that the disproportionate representation by councils with small populations has become “a little absurd.” Brenda shares an office with the village of Waskada.
Stewart also sees advantages in larger governance models.
“Right now we can’t even think of any size project in Brenda because we haven’t enough people to pay for it. If we had a bigger council that would give us more clout, I think.”
“And we’d get along better,” he adds.
The throne speech said this push for amalgamation is for “ensuring all municipalities have the capacity to provide essential infrastructure and services to their citizens — without which, they would be unable to meet modern challenges such as effective planning, emergency preparedness and economic development.”
Most of the municipalities with populations now under 1,000 are in the south- and mid-western regions of Manitoba. Pauls wonders whether that is actually part of the reason these are also the regions that continue to experience rural depopulation.
“What I see are some towns and municipalities that are neighbours that don’t get along,” he said.
“And when it comes to governance it doesn’t make sense. If you’re not getting along with your neighbour, then how can you grow?”
Dobrowolski said the AMM was looking forward to hearing more about what the province’s game plan on the matter is this week.
Minister of Local Government Ron Lemieux was scheduled to address the AMM convention on Tuesday.