Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Service-fee hike for cottagers in mail

New value-assessment model in works

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Cottagers in Manitoba's parks will find out this week how much they'll pay in increased service fees for having a property in a provincial park.

Along with the invoice to approximately 6,500 cottage owners is word the province will phase-in, starting in 2018, a new property-value assessment model for cottagers inside Manitoba's provincial parks -- a system based on how cottagers outside provincial parks are taxed by municipalities.

Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh said the new system, which is still to be developed, was approved by cabinet Wednesday.

"The dream of cottage life in Manitoba is one that must be sustainable and that means sustainable financially so that the services that we provide can continue into the future," he said.

Mackintosh said the new property- value assessment model is intended to replace the current rent and service-fee system with a single payment based on what a property is worth. The province will consult with cottagers and municipalities on their own long-established assessment and tax systems.

Mackintosh stressed the province's vision is not a money grab.

"We will be developing a property value appraisal system that is revenue neutral to what we are planning now," he said. "In other words, some park cottagers will pay less and there will be some who pay more based on the value of their property. It is not to increase above what we have already projected."

Driving the change is a concern among many park cottagers the current fee system does not adequately distinguish between well-kept cottages, essentially year-round homes with insulated garages and older cottages that have had few improvements since they were built decades ago.

"This takes our commitment to arrive at a fair fee system for park cottagers to a much better place," Mackintosh said.

Properties in Manitoba are assessed every two years to keep pace with changing market values, but whether that schedule is applied to park cottages has yet to be decided.

"We're looking for a phase-in, not all at once," he said. "It may be that we'll start with some park districts, perhaps even smaller ones, just to make sure (it's fair)," Mackintosh said.

The province says service fees for park cottagers have been frozen for a decade, which has created a situation in which it only collects $1.7 million in fees from cottagers to cover service costs. The estimated cost of services for cottagers is more than $4 million.

"It means only 42 per cent of the costs are contributed by cottagers -- the rest by taxpayers," Mackintosh said.

He said an independent audit of the new fee structure, done by accounting firm Grant Thornton, found the new fee structure was set too low in 12 park districts and too high in one -- Seven Sisters. The high one will be adjusted and the ones too low will be maintained.

"The one obvious finding is that there did not appear to be any over estimation of (park service) costs," Mackintosh said.

The audit report and the province's calculations are to be posted on the Conservation department's website for new park-district service fees and Crown land rent.

Also approved by cabinet is a $3,000 cap on park service fees and land rent this year, which will be maintained for the next three years. To ensure all numbers are correct, spot appraisals are being done in the event any adjustments have to be made. Cottagers who believe their rent assessment is unfair can counter with their own certified appraisal for an adjustment.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2014 A8

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