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Cottages, taxes & fees

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Victoria Beach sunset

I get it.

We don't like it when things change. We don't like it when things cost more.

We especially don't like it when the heavy hand of government tells us we've been getting a free ride for too long.

I'm talking about the province's plan to increase fees for 6,000 cottage owners in 18 of Manitoba's provincial parks, which was announced last year. 

So everyone knows I own a seasonal cottage at Victoria Beach. It's on 7th Avenue. My annual fee is a tax and water bill that comes from the RM of Victoria Beach. I also pay school taxes to Lord Selkirk School Division. My tax bill arrives at my city home -- where I (obviously) also pay city and education taxes -- around the end of June and must be paid by the end of July.

I don't like paying school taxes to the Lord Selkirk School Division. My kids attend school in the Seven Oaks School Division. But I do. On time. Every year.

Comparing my total cottage and city tax bills, I pay more on the cottage. In exchange, during July and August they pick up my garbage once a week. We have a local police service. The RMVB also maintains the public stairs to the beaches. The avenues are also plowed in the winter. (We rarely use the cottage in the winter because it is not fully insulated.)

Paying my cottage tax bill at the height of the summer is sometimes tough to swallow -- I'd rather be spending the money on beer and steaks and more beer.

But that's the price of me being lucky enough to own a cottage at Victoria Beach. I am blessed to have it.

It's a choice my wife and I made a decade ago. It means we don't take winter holidays to Mexico and we live in the same crappy house we bought before we were married in 1990. 

We're happy with that. We also know we are not alone.  

Now, the government has said it wants park cottage owners to start paying higher fees starting this year.

Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh says the intention is to bring more equity to the system and so park cottage fees reflect more closely the cost of maintaining parks. 

Because my name is on the story, I'm the one getting the emails today.

I'm going to share them here as they come in so that in some small way everyone who wants to can participate in the fee debate.

We're all passionate about our cottages whether it's a back-country shack or a waterfront palace.

Let the emails and comments fly. 

1)

Mr. Owen,

Why was Mr. Tom Walker, President of the Whiteshell Cottagers Association, not consulted for this article or other cottage associations for their views on cottage fees? I am sure you would get a more balanced view of what exactly has transpired in the last 7 years between Manitoba Conservation and cottagers in this province. Please read the Manitoba Parks Act for more information on what the government is required to provide to owners and occupiers of all provincial parks in Manitoba.

Werner Toews

2)

Hi Bruce,

I wanted to add a couple of points to your article this morning in the Free Press. I have a cottage at Star Lake and the only service I get is summer road grading and centralized garbage pickup. A combined group of cottagers share the cost for winter road clearing. I am fortunate to be able to go to the lake all year, which I am thankful for. In the summer we have the "cottage road" graded, I would say twice a year, no addition of gravel, just grading. I draw water from the lake for toilets and showering, pay my own hydro bill and pump out my holding tank at my own cost. The fire service is volunteer-based and there is no school. Unlike the people outside of the park, I have no ability to hold an elected official to account other than the grader operator.

My primary residence is Headingley and I would estimate the value of my home to be $650,000 with a tax bill of $5,000. Of that bill roughly 50% would be school taxes. As you know in Headingley, I have access to schools, road clearing, sewer and water, elected officials at all levels of government.

Does it seem fair that I will be paying $4,000 as a pure tax which is 100% higher than what I pay in Headingley for RM services? Does it make sense that my neighbour who only is able to come for the 4-5 month season should pay $800 per month to go to the lake? There are many cottagers that are three-season in the Whiteshell and may not be able to be retained by the owners with these increased costs. That said, I am sure the government is well acquainted with the passion cottagers have for their places and have fully leveraged that emotion.

I have no issue with paying my proportionate share of associated expenses but this increase is so far out of line in terms of fairness, I can only conclude once again that this government has no other fiscal strategy than to tax its citizen's at every available opportunity.

I also find it interesting that the other political parties have not weighed in on this issue. Perhaps they don't see it as having any political traction, which I would differ with. As you would know, many of the NDP constituents are school teachers who are in abundance in these provincial parks. How will they be voting in the next election?

In the words of Frazier Crane, thanks for listening.

Jim and Louise Grapentine

3)

Hello Bruce,

Your article is interesting, but I wish you had investigated some of the claims before publishing them.

The Whiteshell cottagers association launched a lawsuit nearly a decade ago because of a lack of transparency. The government dropped their defence, paid the association costs and promised to be transparent. Still, they are dragging their heels -- now waiting for an audit. I don't hold my hope out too much -- and I think this should have been part of the story.

Winter road services is a joke. They only clear the highway -- is that not a basic service anywhere in Manitoba? We pay into a collective to pay for private plowing services down our block road if we want to use our place in the winter.

The roads themselves (even in the summer) are dangerously bad. That could be an article on its own.

The trails have been going downhill, and various other small services are really for park visitors. Those people have not had to pay anything as of late. No gate at the south end of the park anyway -- so it may a well be free.

The only services I can think of is garbage services. This costs thousands of dollars? I think I would rather carry it in to the city where I already pay my taxes.

To be clear; everyone is OK with fees going up. Including myself. It just needs to be transparent as the government agreed to in the lawsuit they dropped their defence on. The amounts are staggering -- around 750% -- so it leaves us wondering.

I would just like to have seen a more balanced article. My hope is that you will  follow up with this transparency the government suggests.

Doug Crabb

 4)

Dear Bruce,

Good story, however we offer the following comment: Mr. Mackintosh was invited last spring to attend the Whiteshell Cottagers Association annual meeting and explain the proposed new fees. He either declined or did not reply.

He sent two people from his office, who with a computer put an outline of the proposed new increase with little or no explanation. Their presentation took all of 15 to 20 minutes, then refused to take or answer any questions then left the meeting.

You may wish to contact Tom Walker President of the Association for a copy of the minutes or more info. The cottagers association have been trying to get info from the government on budget and expenses to no avail as required under the Provincial Parks Act.

The services I receive as a cottage owner are as follows: gargage pickup from a central location, the road behind my cottage graded once a year and maybe not. If one wishes to use their cottage in the winter, cottagers must arrange and pay for having the road cleared by a private contractor. We no longer use our cottage in the winter now because of high hydro costs, license fees, insurance costs, trail passes. etc. We have just found it too expensive.

We are not against paying a fair share; show us the costs and not pie in the sky numbers. We have all spent many dollars upgrading our cottages, creating jobs, paying taxes on materials etc. and now the government wants me to pay double what my house taxes are 10 years from now on my cottage which we have worked damn hard for for our family and ourselves to enjoy.

WE also note in the editorial that the new cash will not be going into PARKS but into general revenue fund. WE promise this government this will not go away easy.

Tom Johnstone

5)

Dear Bruce,

I am writing in reply to your questionable article in the Winnipeg Free Press.

As both an owner of a house in Winnipeg and a cottage at Caddy Lake I take offence to your complete lack of due diligence in the writing of the article regarding taxes/fees on cottages in provincial parks.

Information is readily available in the Provincial Parks Act or information provided by the various associations who have a vested interest in this matter. Should you have done your home work and written a subjective article I'm sure your article would have been been much different.

The Winnipeg Free Press should demand a higher level of competence from its reporters as is expected by its readers.

G. T. Newsham

6)

Bruce,

Your article "Whining in Cottage Country" is offensive and one sided. Have you consulted with any cottage owners in the Whiteshell to get a real understanding of the situation at hand? Doubt it.

As a cottage owner at Victoria Beach, you receive municipal services, comparing the Whiteshell to a municipality is ridiculous. You have stated that your roads are cleared in the winter time, mine are not.

To use or visit my cottage 5/12 months I must hire a private contractor to plow nearly 2 km of what you would call a municipal road to get to my cottage. You have stated that your garbage is collected in the summer months, to dispose of my garbage I must drive it to a centralized location, 2 km away in the summer and over 10 km in the winter as they lock the disposal bins from November until early May. You have to pay school taxes at your cabin, but you have the option of sending your kids to school in that RM. I do not have that option.

Fire service in the Whiteshell is volunteer and over an hour away.... pointless. RCMP that come to emergency calls come from Lac Du Bonnet, 45 minutes away. Why should we pay for services we do not have? If you and the government would like to compare the Whiteshell to a Municipality, I strongly suggest you review the definition of a municipality.

If you had taken the time to review the "Building the Parks" plan, it is clear that the main focus is on camping. Creating more showers, creating more full service sites, building more yurts, making improvements to back country camp sites...... where do the cottagers benefit from any of this?

Provincial parks are for everyone. They used to charge people for entering into the park. They still "require" people to purchase passes but it is completely on the honour system. Lots of people come into the park for day trips and never pay a dime. Manitobin's should subsidize the park to a certain extent because it is a place to be enjoyed by all. So why should the cottage owners pay to take care of the park?

I don't disagree that fees shouldn't go up, but don't you think they should be justifiable? Your article has done an excellent job painting Whiteshell cottage owners as spoiled rich snobs. Thank you.

I would hope you would do a little more research before writing your next article.

Devin Gowryluk 

 

7)

Just thought I would write a rebuttal as a "privileged" cottage owner.

To enjoy that privilege, my husband and I earned diplomas. We both worked long hours -- usually 12 or more, including shiftwork, as we raised our children. Owning a second home does not mean unpacking a cooler, putting your feet up and relaxing. Yard work, repairs and maintenance costs is the life of a cottage owner.

And yet it has been a wonderful retreat for over 20 years! But...back to cottage fee hikes...I have written 7 letters to Parks and Conservation since April 2013. The only replies I received were to tell me a) that the online fee calculation site had malfunctioned and that they would repair it b) that I had missed the meeting dates (although I never received any notice of dates or where the advertising took place).

Perhaps the government did not want too many people knowing of these meetings ?!? If you would like, I could provide you with copies of my letters with parks department replies. Their Parks strategy document outlines the total costs of park operation, cottage related income and "cottage related expenses." In my opinion, cottagers reflect only 1/4 of park related expenses.

How can Parks accurately calculate these figures when they neglect the expenses created by businesses in the parks, campground users and day users? Roads and garbage are shared by all. In our area, the only improvements to be seen are in the campgrounds.

Mr. Mackintosh claims the government is only interested in what is a fair outcome--so do the cottagers.

Comparing parks cottage fees to cottagers outside parks is not reasonable. There are no schools in provincial parks, minimal street lighting, no garbage pick-up (cottagers must take their garbage to receptacles) and only highway snow clearing (cottagers privately pay for block road clearing). As for frozen park service and rent fees, my invoices have increased steadily from $660 to $1,000 annually.  

Historically, the government's poor funds management and allocating of cash into the general revenue fund is what caused errors in calculating park service fees in the past.

Judy Starink 

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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