Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Angry cottagers vow to withhold fees over dispute

Miffed with way province imposing increases

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Some Manitoba cottagers say they will refuse to pay increased provincial park fees until the province opens its financial books as required under the Parks Act.

The cottagers say they will withhold part or all of their park fees this year in protest. A park fees is like a property tax.

"I'm going to pay last year's amount and tell (Manitoba Conservation) it will get the difference when it stops breaking the law and gives us financial information that supports the increase," said Gary Kennedy, a cottager on White Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park. The annual fee on his lakefront property last year was about $800 and he faces a $400 increase this year.

The protest is over the province's new schedule that will see park fees soar by 750 per cent on lakefront properties over the next 10 years, and 250 per cent on backlot cottages. In Grindstone Provincial Park, lakefront cottages owners will pay between $2,500 and $3,000 a year. In the Whiteshell, that will push annual park fees on lakefront properties to the $4,000 to $5,000 range.

'We as cottagers agree as a group that our fees have been too low. We're not disputing that. What we are challenging is the methodology and thought process the province used'

Kennedy contacted almost half of the 82 cottage owners on the lake and suggested three options: pay the full park fee; don't pay this year's increase accompanied by a letter of protest; don't pay any fee and send a letter of protest.

Several cottagers have told Kennedy they will not pay any of their park fee this year.

"We as cottagers agree as a group that our fees have been too low. We're not disputing that. What we are challenging is the methodology and thought process the province used," said Kennedy, a director with the Whiteshell Cottagers Association.

The province didn't consult with cottager groups before going ahead with the new park fees.

In 2005, the association took Manitoba Conservation to court. It argued the province is required under sections 18 and 20 of the Parks Act to make financial records for the parks available.

It led to the discovery that Manitoba Conservation had overcharged Whiteshell cottage owners for park services. Whiteshell cottagers were charged for the salaries of three employees who didn't work in the department: Two worked in other departments, and one was dead. The province ended up refunding $56 to every cottage owner, about $200,000 in total.

The bigger outcome, however, was that Manitoba Conservation abandoned its defence, paid the association's legal expenses ($22,000), vowed to open its books and develop a financial-management system by 2008. It has yet to fulfil the last obligation.

Harry Meneer, a Falcon Lake cottage owner who was an association director when it took the province to court the first time, believes the province is stonewalling "because I don't think they're going to spend (lease revenue from cottagers) where they say they are going to spend it." That is, the money won't be spent to benefit cottagers.

Meneer, whose park fees will increase about $400 from last year's $700, said he won't pay the increase this year.

Refusing to pay park fees is not the association's policy. It will send a form letter of protest next week to owners of the park's 3,300 cottages. Cottage owners will be asked to send them to Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh. The association has hired a lawyer with the intent of suing the province again, if necessary.

It isn't known when cottagers in 18 provincial parks will get their invoices. Billings are delayed by a review from an outside auditor, a provincial spokesman said.

The government official declined to say what action the province would take against people who don't pay the full fee.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 7, 2014 A4

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