UNDER orders from the Pallister government, Manitoba Hydro has cancelled a program that would have paid $4.2 million to six rural municipalities inconvenienced by a new transmission line cutting across their boundaries.
The southeast Manitoba municipalities learned the program would be cancelled earlier this year. No formal agreements had been signed.
Hydro spokesman Scott Powell said the program was developed for municipalities impacted by the proposed Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project. The $453-million project, now in the final licensing phase, would expand Hydro’s capacity to sell power to the United States.
Powell said he wanted to make clear the program was not designed to buy municipalities’ silence. "They were free to oppose. This had nothing to do with their support for the line," he said.
The money would have been doled out based on the population of each municipality and the number of kilometres of transmission line passing through them. It was similar to a program offered to municipalities affected by the Bipole III transmission line. Hydro started talking to municipalities about the initiative in March 2017, he said.
However, in late November, Hydro was instructed by the Progressive Conservative government to cancel the program.
"We have to be in line with provincial government policy, and we’ve brought our policy regarding these agreements in line with the province’s," Powell said Monday.
He said the program’s cancellation does not affect payments to landowners who will be directly affected by the transmission towers and lines.
The Free Press asked to speak with Crown Services Minister Colleen Mayer about the move, but received an emailed statement from her instead.
Mayer said no formal agreements were in place with the municipalities, so no deals were broken.
"Our government has a mandate to spend taxpayers’ dollars wisely. Under the previous NDP government such benefit agreements were handed out without any verification of real impacts, and that’s no longer acceptable," Mayer said.
Benefits will still be available to communities and landowners, but from now on Manitoba Hydro will need to verify and document real impacts.
The rural municipalities that would have received the cash were: Stuartburn, Piney, Springfield, Tache, La Broquerie and Ste. Anne.
The municipalities the Free Press contacted Monday were not surprised by the province’s policy directive — given the government’s well-known desire to reduce costs — and had not been counting on the cash, although they said it would have been put to good use.
Anne Burns, chief administrative officer with La Broquerie, said her municipality was told the money would be available for "a community project."
She said it was told it was eligible for $900,000. Hydro informed the RM by letter Feb. 4 no money would be coming, she said.
Christine Hutlet, CAO of the RM of Tache, said the money was never guaranteed. She said Hydro never told the municipality how much it would receive.
She said, unlike individual landowners, the municipality would not be adversely affected by the transmission line, other than suffering a possible decrease in property assessment.
I wasn’t shocked (by the government’s decision). And I don’t believe council was shocked either," Hutlet said. "It’s a little disappointing, but with all of the cutbacks that we’re seeing, provincial and otherwise, it wasn’t a surprise.
A year ago, the Pallister government ordered Hydro not to proceed with a $67.5-million agreement with the Manitoba Metis Federation. Part of that deal called for the MMF not to oppose the Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project.
Meanwhile, Powell said Manitoba Hydro still plans to have the transmission line in service by June 2020.
He said the project will boost Hydro’s export capacity to 3,185 megawatts from about 2,300 megawatts. The new line will also double the amount of power it can import from the United States — to 1,400 megawatts — in an emergency.
This Hydro expenditure for the Bipole III line was provided for under the "Community Development Program". The budget allocated for the program was $61 million to be paid out over a 10-year period starting some time during the construction phase. The allocation has likely been partly liquidated as the line was completed in July 2018. The beneficiaries were not only the rural municipalities in southern Manitoba but also indigenous communities across the province.
"It is not a $453 million project. That is just the amount Hydro is paying for the line in Manitoba. They are also paying for most of the line into Minnesota for a total cost of $1.1 billion - which you don't hear about. Now the government have to borrow that money for Manitoba Hydro and charge 1% annually for doing so. That is $11 million annually into the provincial treasury. The one time payout of $4.2 million to the municipalities is peanuts in the overall scheme of things."