The Whiteshell Cottagers Association welcomes the idea of a long-term strategy for the management of Manitoba's provincial parks, as announced March 8 by Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh.
Sadly, at their recent annual general meeting, members found many aspects of the plan ill-advised. For example, it speaks volumes that this important announcement came as a complete surprise to the association, the largest single user group of the provincial parks.
The Manitoba Parks Act requires stakeholder input into decision making, and as citizens with deep interests in management of the parks, we have long encouraged ongoing collaboration between government and users for parks planning. Our hopes have fallen on deaf ears, and we are now faced with what seems to be a done deal. WCA is deeply offended by both the process and content of this strategic plan.
We reject the minister's assertion that cottagers have been "enjoying" a 15-year freeze on fees. To the contrary, the past decade has been marked by cuts in services to cottagers; docks left dangerously rotting; roads in dangerous condition (rutted, rarely graded and unprotected from dust); navigation hazards left unmarked, etc.
We may be paying the same amount for our leases and services, but the benefits we derive from them have been melting away -- not what we would call a freeze. The ultimate kick in the pants came last year, when after years of indecision, Conservation formally ended its traditional practice of including park entry as part of cottagers' lease fees. Not a big-dollar item, but imagine your reaction if you held a long-term lease on an apartment and the landlord suddenly began charging you for an entrance fee to the building?
A critical part of the minister's strategy is a new formula for contributions to park operations from cottagers, campers and businesses. These contributions are set to increase from the current 30 per cent to at least 50 per cent of total inputs. According to the plan, an average cottager will see increases of about $2,000 per year. This is a frightening prospect, especially for low- or fixed-income cottagers, of whom there are many. We fear that if this draconian increase is implemented, many cottagers will be forced to sell.
Typically however, and this is the crux of the problem, the minister is unwilling to reveal the reasons and calculations that lead to these proposed new tax and service rates. While several years of level rates suggest some increase might be reasonable, the appropriate amount of that raise remains an open question. Without opening his books to show the relative costs of delivered services, the minister's citing of higher rates in municipalities neighbouring parks could just be and apples-and-oranges comparison.
The contention, expressed in a recent Free Press editorial that "cottagers should pay full freight," though expressed in a divisive way, is not far from the position of the WCA, as long as "full freight" implies "fair share." We support the idea of user-pay but with a major caveat: We, and other users, have a right to know what we are paying for.
The WCA fully supports the declared intention of the minister for a fair and transparent balance between user fees and the cost to taxpayers. But where is the data to support the idea that 50 per cent of park expenditures directly benefits cottagers, campers and businesses? Will the projected increases simply offset a decrease in the government contribution? Or will they improve the services provided to cottagers, campers and businesses? We simply don't know, and can't know, until we have a look at a detailed financial breakdown of park expenditures.
In 2005, our association launched a successful civil action against Manitoba Conservation on the grounds it failed to meet the specific transparency requirements of the Parks Act. Since then, the WCA has been waiting for Manitoba Conservation to provide users and leaseholders with annual reports and budgets for parks expenditures, as the law, and we, demand. How else could anyone test the minister's contention of "fair balance" between users' and government financial contributions?
Our membership is a slice of Manitoba's general population, white collar and blue, beginning families and retired couples. For every extravagant dwelling there are many modest cottages, often built by the owners themselves, or by their parents or grandparents, and cherished by following generations. We are united in our appreciation of the peaceful beauty of the Whiteshell, and our mission is to maintain this jewel of a park for the enjoyment of future generations. We are prepared to co-operate with the minister to resolve the ongoing problem of determining a formula for all groups to contribute their fair share for a sustainable parks system. But any solution must be inclusive, openly arrived at and based upon full disclosure of actual expenditures. The Manitoba Parks Act demands transparency and we will accept nothing less.
Tom Walker is president, Daniel Klass is president-elect of the Whiteshell Cottagers Association Inc.