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Dec 10, 2004

Premier Gary Doer has told city councillors annexation of other municipalities in the capital region is a non-starter.

The issue of annexation started when the Rural Municipality of East St. Paul began musing about tapping into the city’s water supply. What prompted this call for help is that the RM’s water-and-sewer resources have been stretched to near capacity. The proposed construction of a new 350-house subdivision in East St. Paul, a community that has already seen the establishment of upscale Pritchard Farm, would become another burden on the system. 

City councillor Peter de Smedt (St. Charles) reacted by making his own proposal — allow the city to annex East St. Paul and the water will start flowing. He can’t be completely blamed for making this proposal, since East St. Paul is a community that has seen its share of disgruntled Winnipeggers pulling up stakes and purchasing low-tax homes in the RM. 

The premier told the city to forget about annexation and work toward co-operation after the municipal governments outside Winnipeg in the Capital region began to see red. That was especially true of East St. Paul Reeve Phil Rebeck who indicated his surprise that approaching the city for a steady water supply caused  the “annexation” word to be uttered.

He really shouldn’t have been overly surprised, since the city has always regarded with suspicion any attempt by the outlying municipalities to tap into its water supply. The prevailing thought over the years has been that allowing bedroom communities access to city water is the path to ruin — assured water means more homes are built outside Winnipeg at the expense of the city’s faltering tax base. Actually, any assured water supply for rural areas has invariably been regarded with near contempt by city hall.

Former mayors Susan Thompson and Glen Murray continually fought the province’s subsidies bestowed upon rural municipalities for sewer-and-water systems. That was particularly true of the Premier Gary Filmon era when sewer-and-water projects were constantly being announced by the province to the chagrin of the city.

De Smedt was right when he said that Doer’s nixing of annexation had more to do with politics than regard for its impact on the city. Politics has always interfered in capital region development. Filmon didn’t want to anger his rural voters who he counted on for support, and Doer is hoping to earn support from these areas where the NDP has traditionally fared poorly.

The bedroom communities surrounding Winnipeg are hotbeds of conservativism. Residents are invariably relatively well-off and have limited desire to part with their wealth in the form of increased taxation, and they enjoy living on an acre or two of land out in the country. That they’re actually setting their communities on a course of citification they sought to escape is rarely considered as part of the equation.

Annexation to Winnipeg would mean higher taxes — that’s inevitable. What they would get in return is another matter. In the case of Headingley, which had been part of Winnipeg, residents enjoyed fewer services than their city proper counterparts. That’s why they approached the province and received the right to secede a few years ago. After the province allowed the secession, it promptly subsidized a sewer system project which has contributed to the overall expansion of the community. Headingley is now thriving as an RM immediately adjacent to Winnipeg.

The “annexation” word has such power that some rural politicians called for de Smedt’s resignation from the capital region committee. Apparently, de Smedt was able to placate the reeves and mayors during their last meeting by saying he does not favour forced annexation. Still, the potential for renewed rage exists under the right circumstances.

The animosity that has resulted from a simple request for water could have easily been avoided if the province had set out rules for co-operative planning and development in the capital region. They’ve been dilly-dallying for years and even the completion of a report over a year ago didn’t result in action. It’s important that the province informs the municipal governments of its preferred course of action since only it has the authority to lay out the rules of conduct.

The province could have devised a formula for sharing resources and taxes (in the report) — the very co-operation favoured by the premier. 

The premier, reeves and mayors comprising the capital region committee will be meeting this week, but barring a miracle, there cannot be any immediate resolution of where the city stands in relation to the other municipalities it shares the neighbourhood with.

Right now, all that is known for certain  is that annexation is out of the question. And, that’s simply not enough.