Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cottagers want answers, not claptrap from NDP

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There should be collective embarrassment over the government's prevarications in the debate over fee and rent increases in Manitoba's Parks. While co-opting the cottage owners' message of the need for fairness and transparency, Premier Greg Selinger, Infrastructure Minister Steve Ashton and Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh have all misspoken. While this might just be written off as spin, to ordinary people it is unvarnished claptrap, and it is unworthy of our elected officials.

The government contends cottagers are subsidized by the province in their use of services in the park. The truth is that cottagers pay more than their share of the cost for the services they receive, even when that share is based on the government's calculations. (See graph for data.)

As is seen in the table, pulled together from disparate government accounts, the province receives $2.8 million more from cottagers per year than the cost of the services they receive. So how do the government ministers arrive at their conclusion of unfair subsidization? By the simple expedient of not counting all the fees cottagers pay into the provincial coffers. This makes a sham of their use of the word fairness.

The little lady on Dagmar Street, whom Selinger patronizes by claiming in the legislature she is subsidizing cottagers, can rest easy after all. Since cottagers are already paying their own way and more, what can the government possibly mean when they declare unfair subsidies to cottagers?

And then there is the claim of transparency. The government's cynical use of that word to describe their obscurantist behaviour is ludicrous. The willingness of the government to communicate meaningful information is best characterized by the real-life response of a park official to a cottager's valid request for data: "You don't want to know." Actually, we do want to know, and we have a right to know.

Although the government website has belatedly been flooded with pages full of numbers, we can assure Manitobans that simple scrutiny of these rows and columns reveals nothing of help to the cottagers trying to find out what they are actually getting for their money.

For example, it is not reassuring to find cottagers at West Hawk Lake are expected to pay for the amortization of long-term capital costs amounting to nearly $500,000 per year, presumably indefinitely, plus a miscellaneous charge of $50,000, with no detail provided to explain what these expenditures actually are for. Nor has the department ever revealed the details of the "Deloitte methodology," a method used to apportion costs among the stakeholders in the parks. This method was derived from a publicly funded, $1-million study commissioned by Manitoba Conservation in 2007. It remains secret.

Since 2007, cottage owners have been engaged in a protracted and seemingly fruitless effort to get the government to reveal this information in compliance with Secs. 18-20 of the Manitoba Parks Act. This is opacity, not transparency.

The government has also been duplicitous in its claim of consultation with stakeholders. When, on March 7, 2013, the new parks strategy emerged fully formed from Manitoba Conservation, it was to the surprise of all the stakeholders; there had been no prior consultation with the groups who make use of the park, including businesses, campers, day visitors, special service organizations and cottagers. Since then, the department has been in full propaganda mode, conflating the tactic of publicly funded marketing of their plan with what should have been embarked upon in the first place -- a comprehensive plan of discussion and feedback with the public, i.e. consultation.

As cottagers have repeatedly stated, we want fairness and transparency as commonly understood and as defined by the parks act, not as spun by the current administrators of the park. We have listened to the arguments and examined all the material meted out by the government but have heard and seen nothing that would justify 500 per cent to 700 per cent increases in rents for leased land, nor large and unsubstantiated increases in service fees when no increase in service has been seen for over a decade.

The government seems intent on marching ahead with their tax grab, meanwhile putting an end to affordable cottaging and turning the parks into playgrounds for the wealthy.

Their recently announced concessions on these increases -- the offer of a short-term cap on fees and rent and a longer-term deferral for financial hardship -- are sure signs of their own unease about their program.

Surely they must know that eventually the truth behind their obfuscations will be out and that their continuing autocratic effort to impose taxation without representation will never be accepted by the stakeholders, let alone by the community at large. Nonetheless, we are prepared to sit down with the minister and the other stakeholders to collectively find reasonable and creative pathways to ensure the preservation and enhancement of our beautiful provincial parks for the benefit of all Manitobans. Yes, Minister?


Daniel Klass, a retired physician, is president-elect of the Whiteshell Cottagers Association.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 A17

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