Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Annexation of cottage country could solve municipal tax woes

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FLIN FLON -- They shop here, often work here and in a lot of cases used to live here. But are the few hundred cottagers who reside just outside Flin Flon really Flin Flonners? That's the question at the centre of a fierce debate gripping this mining community.

Faced with rising costs and a dwindling tax base, Flin Flon city council has taken the hunt for new funding to the cottage subdivisions a number of kilometres outside municipal limits.

It comes down to an ultimatum: Either the cottagers voluntarily pay an annual, yet-to-be-agreed-upon fee to city hall or council will attempt to annex and tax cottage country.

It's raised the ire of people like John Munson, a bespectacled retiree who moved to the lake from Flin Flon a number of years ago.

"I chose to retire, to live out here, and I could have chosen to retire anywhere," he said. "I didn't move out here to get away from paying taxes. I paid taxes for 30 years in town."

George Fontaine, the popular mayor of Flin Flon, is not naïve about the controversy.

"We're made to be the ogres in some conversations, and it's sad that that's the case, but people can think of it in the terms they want," he said. "We're looking for fairness on our side."

For Fontaine, that fairness stems from the fact that a shrinking pool of Flin Flon taxpayers is subsidizing services used on a broadly regional basis, from a swimming pool and a hockey arena to a library and an auditorium.

"I think I have the right to protect the taxpayers within this community who are paying for all of that, which is my job," he said. "The outside (residents) are... using the services that these people are paying for."

But many cottagers say that if Fontaine wants them to pay for city services, he should institute a user fee at public facilities. Or why not go after the province for the $1,000 annual fee it collects from each cottager?

In any event, annexation is not a city council power; it rests with the minister of local government, Ron Lemieux.

If Lemieux green-lit annexation, he would open a can of worms across the province, emboldening municipalities of all sizes to take over surrounding land to boost their revenues.

It would spark protests from cottagers, often wealthy, influential types who know how to fight political battles. Seems like a pretty big headache just to help Flin Flin keep a pool or arena.

Then again, there's no denying the government's relentless opening of new cottage lots, while advantageous politically, has helped drain taxpayers from Flin Flon and other communities.

Flin Flon's population has dropped nearly 700 to 5,600, over the last decade. Mining downsizing has played a role, but so too has the flow of residents to the lake.

Outside Flin Flon, there are believed to be up to 400 cottages. Most appear to be year-round homes.

Fontaine has indicated only those who live at the lake year-round should pay, but that would only be possible under a voluntary payment scenario. If annexation went ahead, all cottagers would be taxed on assessed value whether they use their cottages for 12 months or 12 days each year.

Even if annexation seems unlikely, there are fears the mere mention of the word may hamper the lucrative cottage market surrounding Flin Flon. Is a cottage that sells for $300,000 today, with $1,000 in annual fees, still worth that much if it comes with annual taxes of $7,000 that are sure to rise?

Worse yet, with many cottagers retirees on fixed incomes, would annexation drive people out of their homes?

And while we're on the subject, who's really a Flin Flonner?

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2013 A15

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