The average service fee increase for cottagers in provincial parks this year is $247, Conservation and water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh said recently.
"And, if some feel that that is too great to bear, we would certainly welcome, you know, a deferral arrangement with that-with any cottager that is so concerned, " Mackintosh said.
This and the government's rational for the increases were discussed at a recent committee meeting at the legislature in which critic PC MLA Shannon Martin grilled Mackintosh on whether the increases were justified. (See Hansard starting on page 1970).
In particular, Martin quizzed the minister that with the new increases, if the province would make available park costs for the past several years, as outlined in sections 18.3 and section 20 of The Provincial Parks Act.
"Here we are in 2014 and it almost – the impression we're left with is that the government woke up one day and said, you know, we're behind in terms of revenues for our cottages," Martin said. "The dispute or the disagreement seems to lie in the amounts that the government is imposing on those cottagers and that the increase of upwards of 750 per cent, many cottagers are suggesting, does not constitute their fair share."
The debate over the increases began several weeks ago when many park cottagers got their invoices in the mail outlining what they owe. There are about 6,200 cottages in Manitoba's provincial parks.
Many cottagers have complained that the increases are unfair and held a protest rally at the legislative building.
They also say the government has been too slow to explain where the money is going. The province recently posted the cost forecast for Park District Service Fees for 2014-15 to answer that criticism.
Mackintosh stuck to his guns that the increases were fair, reasonable and transparent. He added the park-fee increase is being cushioned by a 10-year phase-in and has a cap of $3,000, a bargain when compared to what's happening to cottagers in Ontario.
He also said possible court action -- the Whiteshell Cottagers Association is weighing possible litigation -- against the increases would be welcome.
"If there's further court proceedings, then there's another independent set of eyes in addition to the auditor, in addition to, you know, anything the Ombudsman might want to do or -- and that, I can only say, we should welcome because we've got to get on with the job of supporting park cottagers for the services that make their quality of life good, and at the same time, being fair in terms of how we get back to where, I think, the legislative scheme originally intended us to go, and that was a recovery of service costs and fair market value for rent," Mackintosh said.
Mackintosh also said an opinion piece that recently ran in the Free Press on the increases was inaccurate.
"In terms of the article in the Free Press a couple of weeks ago, it actually -- it listed $1.7 million as the current cottage service fees collected, and then in another line called vacation home lease and permits, it listed $4 million, but that includes the $1.7 million in service fees again, along with $2.3 million in rent. So the service fees of $1.7 million were double-counted, suggesting that cottagers pay far more than they do," he said.