January 22, 2013
By Kevin Weedmark
Forced municipal amalgamation in Manitoba will see some local councils disappear if the provincial government gets its way.
The government of Manitoba wants all municipalities to have at least 1,000 residents, and is asking those with fewer than 1,000 to amalgamate with neighbors to get to the thousand mark.
Municipalities must share a boundary with those they plan to amalgamate with, so the village of Elkhorn, surrounded by the RM of Wallace, would have no choice but to amalgamate with the RM, which has about 1,500 residents.
The village of St. Lazare already works closely with the RM of Ellice, sharing a chief administrative officer and a grader operator.
But the combined populations of St. Lazare and Ellice don't hit the thousand mark. Even if St. Lazare, the RM of Ellice and the RM of Archie amalgamated, they would still be about 28 people shy of the 1,000 population threshold.
"This is kind of an effort in futility as far as we're concerned," says Rick Fouillard, who serves as chief administrative officer for both St. Lazare and Ellice.
"We think the government just wants to get rid of a lot of people. In our case we already share the office and the CAO with the village, and our councillors don't get paid much, so it doesn't save much."
The RM of Ellice pays its councillors $150 per month, and shares office space and staff with the village of St. Lazare.
"Right now we have one grader operator for the village and RM, one CAO, one maintenance man for the village, and I have had a part time assistant for a while now," Fouillard says. "You could combine the councils, but it's not going to save much. For the councillors, it's done on the basis you're helping everyone out, not on the basis of making a living at this."
Fouillard said the amalgamations may make it harder for small communities to preserve their identities.
"If you don't have your own council you lose the identity of the town and it can shut down," he said. "In Archie, McAuley has never been a town on its own. I think that makes a big difference."
In addition to St. Lazare and Ellice sharing services, they are part of a regional planning district with several other municipalities, have mutual aid agreements with surrounding fire departments, and support veterinary clinics in surrounding communities.
Fouillard said opposition to the forced amalgamations is mounting.
"There's so much opposition to it," he said. "Every day more and more letters from other municipalities are going to the government to protest this. We figure it should be council's choice if they amalgamate or not."
Fouillard said he doesn't believe the move will save administrative costs in the way the government expects. "I told one guy at the province, if he wants to compare administration costs, our administration is 3.2 per cent of our budget. I don't think the province can touch that. I don't think they should be telling us what to do when they spend more on administration."
The provincial government wants an indication from municipalities who they're talking to on amalgamation by the end of the month.
"They want the amalgamations done for the elections of 2014," Fouillard said. "Now they want to know who we're talking to by the end of January. We've chatted with Archie-everybody's looking around."
One of the many unanswered questions, says Fouillard, is how amalgamation will work in cases where municipalities are in different financial situations.
"Nobody wants to take on someone else's debt," he said. "They say the debts will be kept separate, but when you go forward, they would be paid off by the same taxpayers.
"They say you would have separate budgets and mill rates to start with but then would combine the budgets and the mill rates. If you have totally different mill rates the RM would end up subsidizing the town or vice versa.
"In our case, the village and RM mill rate are quite different."
Fouillard said there isn't a lot of support for the idea at the local level.
"They give you a deadline and start yelling at you that you have to get this in by the end of the month when you're doing year-end-a lot of people are objecting to this," he said. "Councils don't like being told they should amalgamate or who they should amalgamate with.
"We've been incorporated as a municipality since 1883, and now we're being told we have to amalgamate.
"The Association of Manitoba Municipalities is adamant that we don't want to be forced into amalgamation. It should only be councils that want to do it. Sometimes you get municipalities that don't see eye-to-eye, and if they're forced to amalgamate you get discord at council."
Village of Elkhorn administrator Garth Mitchell says the village has no choice when it comes to amalgamation-since it's surrounded by the RM of Wallace, that's who it must amalgamate with.
"Amalgamation has been discussed for the last number of years, and the province has been encouraging it, but mandatory amalgamation was just announced in November," he said. "We expected a bit more lead time-they want everything done by October 2014.
"We haven't been given a lot of time to work everything out."
Because of the short notice and the busy time of year, Mitchell said the Elkhorn council has not sat down with the RM of Wallace council to discuss amalgamation.
"We haven't had any formal talks," he said. "The month of December is very busy with year end, and we haven't set anything up yet. We have until Jan. 31 to send a letter stating our amalgamation intention, and we believe we don't even need to send that letter because we have no options."
Councils haven't had much of a chance to discuss amalgamation because of the timing of the announcement at the end of last year. Today, Jan. 21, municipalities from across the region will be discussing amalgamation, and Mitchell believes it will be a good chance to get an idea where everyone stands.
"We don't have all the answers yet and we haven't seen the legislation on it," he said.
"I know a lot of people in our region have questions on how it's going to work.
"A few people have pointed out we haven't had a lot of luck with health district or school district amalgamation."
He said the village of Elkhorn would have some questions about how taxation would work in an amalgamated municipality and how debt would be handled.
"Our ratepayers are generally happy with our level of taxation," he said. "The village is debt free and we don't have any debentures of any sort, while the RM does have a fairly large water project."
There are questions about how representation will be distributed on new councils.
"I see more the impact in terms of, what's our representation going to be, how big a council are we going to have," said Mitchell.
"Right now we have a mayor and four councillors in the village, the RM has a reeve and six councillors, and a maximum of 10 is what they will allow for the new councils. Another question would be office location and staffing. We don't really know how that would be affected."
The RM of Wallace extends east of Virden, north of Manson, and south of Elkhorn.
Wallace has a population of 1,500 and Elkhorn has 500 residents.
Mitchell pointed out that a combined municipality would have less access to government funding than two separate municipalities, because of the way some funds are distributed.
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