Forced amalgamation an unwelcome visitor


By: Ken Waddell

Starting off with the two very familiar lines, Don Reid of the Manitoba Local Government department chose his remarks carefully.

“Don’t shoot the messenger” was one line and “I’m with the government and I’m here to help you.”

Reid, a longtime advisor to municipalities, was among friends when he and several other officials addressed a gathering of municipal councillors, mayors and reeves in Neepawa on Feb. 15 in the last of seven sessions with municipal officials. Whether among friends or not, the message wasn’t received in a friendly fashion. But then again, hostile takeovers are rarely greeted in a friendly fashion.

The reason for the meeting was for the LG department to describe to local RMs and towns how the much-dreaded forced amalgamation is expected to take place. Last fall Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux announced unexpectedly that amalgamation of municipalities will take place in time for the 2014 municipal elections. The government’s contention is that efficiencies can be obtained from municipalities combining their resources, staff and populations into larger municipal configurations.

The premise is based on 15-year-old legislation that says a municipality, if it were to form as a new entity, should be 1000 people or more. Many municipalities and even some towns or villages don’t meet the 1000 population level. The initiative was announced just prior to the Association of Municipalities (AMM) annual general meeting in the fall of 2012. The topic was hotly debated at the AMM meeting.

It has been pointed out that municipalities, at least many of them, have no interest in amalgamating. It has also been pointed out that there’s no real gain for the province either and that too was discussed at the Feb. 15 meeting. When asked what was in it for the province, officials declined to answer on the basis that they did not know. Several members of various councils have pointed out that it’s simply a diversionary tactic to help the province avoid all discussions about their own problems, namely the deficit and the ever growing provincial debt.

The AMM’s stand on amalgamation is that it should be voluntary rather than the recent initiative that forces the issue. Rick Pauls, Mayor of Killarney-Turtle Mountain made a presentation at the Feb. 15 meeting describing how their two municipalities combined a few years ago. Pauls said advantages included much quicker decisions, shorter council meetings, fewer councillors and the fact they have been able to buy better equipment and better utilize staff’s talents.

Municipal officials were assured that mill rates can still be kept separate as well as debenture payments but many were skeptical that situation would happen or that it would last.

Municipalities will be required to be absorbed in total, only rarely will splitting an RM be allowed. They must amalgamate with an adjoining municipal entity. While municipalities that have more than 1000 people are not technically required to amalgamate, they may be forced to take on an adjacent RM which has less than 1000 population.

Many have pointed that amalgamation is compulsory under the current legislation and, in fact, many municipalities have said they will refuse to amalgamate. Reeve David Single, of the RM of Westbourne, whose council is opposed to amalgamation, personally sees many advantages (see letter to editor Neepawa Banner Feb. 15/13).

He posed the question “What if there’s a referendum or if after pubic consultation, the local taxpayers say no?” Reid’s answer was “Well, we don’t know the answer to that but when you have language like “must” and required” and that’s the language you are getting (from the minister) what do you think is being suggested”. New legislation is coming and is expected to hit the legislature in April.

Saskatchewan faced a major push to amalgamate several years ago and backed off. Ontario encouraged, and in many cases, forced amalgamation in the 1990s. One big difference is that Ontario passed the legislation first. In Manitoba’s case, the intent has been announced and the legislation is in catch up mode.

The next round of meetings will be the municipal mayors, reeves and CAO meetings scheduled for mid-March.