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Cottagers must pay their share

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Re: The column by Daniel Klass Cottagers want answers (April 5).

No one likes to pay more in rent or for the services they receive from their taxes. As reeve of the RM of Lac du Bonnet, I am well aware of this reality. The most common complaint our council receives from cottager residents here is, "I pay all these taxes and what do I get -- nothing."

Typically, taxes on waterfront property will be in the order of $4,000 to $7,000. Then the cottage residents usually make the point there is no water or sewer, no garbage pickup, no paved streets and a fire service that is some distance away. At the same time, we are frequently told by a non-resident cottager in Lac du Bonnet they are paying more for taxes in the RM of Lac du Bonnet than for their primary residence in the city, and it is somehow not fair.

The RM council is well aware of these facts every year when we are preparing our annual budget. Our focus is always, "How do we deliver the required and expected services that are within the expectations and willingness of the community to pay?"

The 2011 census reported some 54 per cent of the dwellings in the RM of Lac du Bonnet are owned by non-resident or seasonal owners (cottagers). As a result, there is always pressure from non-residents to keep taxes as low as possible while still providing for the needs of year-round residents.

Over the past 30 years, demand for vacation property in Lac du Bonnet and other areas has risen dramatically, driving up property-assessment valuations. Typical bare, waterfront land has increased markedly in value from about $20,000 to $135,000. Personally, I have had this experience with my property over this time period. These dwellings are no longer modest cottages designed for summer use only, but are larger and meant for year-round occupation.

The increased demand has caused assessed values of vacation properties to typically reach $500,000 and often more. As a result, there has been a gradual shift in our municipality of the assessment tax base from farms, which have declined in number, and smaller dwellings to the newer cottage developments.

The reason people acquire vacation property away from the city is to enjoy the water and the wilderness environment of Manitoba as part of their recreational needs, knowing the typical city services will not be present. Regardless, our resident and non-resident property owners still expect to see good value in the services they get for the taxes they pay.

Yet right next door to us, in the Whiteshell, our taxpayers rightly point to the low-cost deal park cottagers have been getting for years. I find it disturbing that Daniel Klass and the Whiteshell Cottagers Association try to make the argument that they pay more than they should.

Unlike in the RM of Lac du Bonnet, park cottagers don't pay property taxes. Instead, they pay land rent and service fees. Service fees pay directly for the services that are delivered in the park for the benefit of cottagers. These fees covered less than half the costs of these services for cottagers last year. These service fees have not increased in a decade -- park cottagers have been getting a favourable deal on services for a long time. The fees in the parks have typically been less than one-third of the taxes charged to vacation properties located in municipalities.

The concerns of Lac du Bonnet residents reflect the unfairness in ownership costs. In fact, we have had several of our local residents move their primary residence to the park to take advantage of the favourable deals.

Because of these concerns, the RM of Lac du Bonnet council brought forward a resolution to the Association of Manitoba Municipalities in November calling for the government to fix the situation, to ensure park cottagers pay fair rent and service fees for their properties. Our resolution passed with 91 per cent support. The resolution called for the provincial government to implement fair market-driven land lease rates and comparable property-tax rates for all properties located in the provincial parks.

Our property owners, including seasonal residents, pay their full share for municipal operations, including bylaw enforcement, fire service, a library, hockey arena, community centre, planning district, waste-water lagoon and road maintenance. The public works expenses for roads, drains and boat launches are the single-largest item in our budget.

In addition, all property owners in Manitoba municipalities are required to pay school taxes, which are usually 50 per cent or more of the total tax bill. (Residential property owners do not get the education tax credit unless it is their primary residence.) School taxes on property are an long-standing, unresolved issue that needs more discussion.

I have sympathy for those coming to realize what it truly costs to service a cottage and rent land. But the approach taken by Klass and the Whiteshell Cottagers Association is not right and is needlessly divisive. It's time for everyone to pay their fair share for vacation-property costs, regardless of location.

Gus Wruck is a retired veterinarian and reeve of the RM of Lac du Bonnet.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2014 A9

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