Article appeared in the Feb. 20, 2013 issue of the Interlake Enterprise…By Teresa Carey…
There are 116 municipalities in Manitoba, with about half of those under 1,000 population, many of them with less than 400 people, and the bulk of these in south western Manitoba.
The Province of Manitoba is moving fast and furious on its requirements that all municipalities across the province with fewer than 1,000 population amalgamate with their neighbours, requiring that the process be completed before the next provincial election in October 2014.
On Feb. 6 municipalities in the Interlake had the opportunity to take part in a two-hour amalgamation seminar put on by the province, the first of seven such seminars that took place across Manitoba. It was intended to give an overview and help answer questions around how to proceed with the amalgamation process.
About 60 people attended the session held at the Teulon Rockwood Centennial Centre. They came from across the Interlake, as well as from areas east of Lake Winnipeg up to Victoria Beach. Except for Rosser and Eriksdale, municipalities along Hwy. 6 were not represented.
The seminar opened with a ten minute presentation by former mayor of Gimli, Bill Barlow. He described how the old town of Gimli merged with the old RM of Gimli following a 1997 study Gimli undertook.
The study correctly predicted there would be substantial decline in property taxes (15-20 per cent in town and 1-2 percent in the RM) if a merger took place.
Barlow described the political issues that arose during the process and fielded questions afterward of how the two Gimli councils handled the process.
“Sometimes you have to swallow your pride,” was his advice regarding dealing with the inevitable questions around politics.
Participants listened respectfully to the four speakers, each presenting on a different facet of amalgamation. However, once the floor was opened to questions, it was apparent that many felt a strong resistance to the prospect of amalgamation.
Several people looked for an explanation as to why the province is pushing forward with this initiative. The presenters’ response was that they were not there to answer “why”, but rather to answer “how”. They promised to bring that question forward to the government.
Some other issues raised were that it was all happening too quickly and should be slowed down, and whether summer populations can be used to determine population base. Some argued that they are doing just fine and that amalgamation would be of no value to them.
The issue of being “dictated to” was expressed, with someone asking the big “what if” question. That is, what if a town or municipality simply refused to amalgamate.
The quick response was that they do have to amalgamate if they are under the 1,000 population threshold, but could not answer the question of what would happen if a neighbouring municipality over the 1,000 threshold refused to take them in.
Arborg mayor, Randy Sigurdson, current board rep for the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM) made a statement of the AMM’s position on amalgamation, reiterating that the AMM wants new time lines.
The AMM has also asserted that there are more important issues facing municipalities than their size, like the need for alternative revenue for infrastructure, improved cellular service, and economic development, for instance, none of which will result from amalgamation, it argues.
Amalgamation is no doubt a hot topic at council meetings of late. It was discussed again briefly at the Feb. 13 Arborg council meeting, with Councillor Erica Olafson raising the Province’s suggestion that municipalities increase their populations to 1,000 by the deadline if they do not want to amalgamate.
“It’s pretty hard to raise your population in a month,” said Olafson.
“You’d need closer to nine months to do that,” Mayor Sigurdson agreed.
On the other hand, the RM of Armstrong council is largely in favour of amalgamation. Reeve Gary Wasylowski welcomes it, but says it has to be done properly to be effective. He sees little cost saving unless the number of municipalities in the province is reduced to 40 or 50, but does see some advantages in terms of pooling of resources in the region. As well, a fresh look at zoning , planning and travel corridors, could help the region to grow.
Interlake riding MLA Tom Nevakshonoff stated last Thursday that he will be advocating for whatever people in his riding want. He said he is not convinced that the provinces 1,000 population threshold is completely rigid.
“What my people want, I will advocate for them. I don’t always win out, but I’ll do my utmost,” Nevakshonoff said.
Nevakshonoff has been making the rounds to all the councils in the Interlake riding. The topic of amalgamation has been on the top of the list for some.
“I’m sure everybody would like it to stay as it is, but that’s not how we adapt to situations to move forward,” he said.
Nevakshonoff pointed to the trend of larger farms and smaller families leading to a decline in rural populations. Therefore, the tax base of municipalities has eroded along with it.
He argues that, for most, amalgamation would be of benefit. However, he is open to the idea that some communities that fall under the threshold may be on firm footing.
“Eriksdale made a good case that their finances are in order. There may be other benchmarks (other than the 1,000 population threshold) that the province would consider,” Nevakshonoff said.
“I’m going to defend their interests. I don’t think there are any ironclad thresholds,” he said.
Nevakshonoff said he does not know how his government will handle the enforcement aspect of amalgamation.
“Well, that is the question, whether the government is going to impose amalgamation. I really wouldn’t want to see that,” Nevakshonoff said. “I would much rather have them choose.”