Under the Dome

with Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Email Larry Kusch & Bruce Owen

  • Cottage fees

    04/21/2014 12:39 PM

    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.


  • Measles information lacking

    04/17/2014 12:38 PM

    After announcing a third and fourth case of measles in Manitoba two weeks ago, the Health Department decided it would not issue further news releases if more cases were confirmed.

    The department advised journalists and the public to check its website.

    This was a curious decision given that the department was grappling with the most serious outbreak of measles in more than two decades and it had written letters to all of the province's schools alerting them to the presence of the highly contagious disease.

    The government's measles website consists mainly of a series of statistical charts showing the total number of cases and breakdowns by gender, region and age group. There is also a chart showing public places that known measles sufferers visited while contagious.

    But unless you already knew how many cases there were previously, you wouldn't be able to tell from the chart whether there had been a new one. The website is to be updated after 3 p.m. each weekday.

    By Wednesday, the Health Department had learned of a fifth case of measles in Manitoba. And, true to its promise, it didn't issue a press release.

    But someone within government must have thought the news was important because on Wednesday, in the middle of the afternoon, there were four tweets issued on the latest case from the Manitoba government's Twitter account.

    The first tweet said that a man in his 20s living in the Winnipeg health region was the province's fifth case.

    The second warned people who were at the ‘Bison Medical Walk-in Clinic' on April 11th should be aware that they may have been exposed to the disease.

    The third tweet carried a link to the symptoms of measles, while the fourth warned that folks who think they have measles symptoms should call ahead before they visit a health clinic so the risk of exposure to others is reduced.

    All of this is good information that would have reached a lot more Manitobans much quicker - notwithstanding the Manitoba government's more than 8,500 Twitter followers - if the province had issued a press release.

    Not only that, but the tweets left a lot of questions unanswered. First, a quick Internet search revealed no record of a ‘Bison Medical Walk-in Clinic.' But it did reveal a Bison Primacy Walk-in Clinic.

    Was that the affected clinic? It took more than two hours for the government to confirm that it was.

    Also omitted in the tweets was the location of the clinic where the fifth measles sufferer potentially spread the disease. It turns out Bison Primacy Walk-in Clinic is located inside the busiest Superstore in Winnipeg.

    There was no information in the tweets about what time the ill 20-something male visited the clinic. But you could find that out if you thought to go to the Health Department's website and clicked on the measles page. There, under the heading Possible Exposure Sites was the fact that on April 11, the public could have been exposed to measles at the clinic (still wrongly named, no address provided) between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.

    At a time when the government of Manitoba will issue a press release at the drop of a hat - recent topics have included the publication of a new seniors guide and an accounting of how many yurts and campsites were booked on the first day reservations - it's puzzling why it didn't see fit to update the public through normal channels on an important health issue.

    By all means, the province should continue to use Twitter to inform the public. But four tweets are no substitute for a detailed press release - or for media access to a senior public health official to explain an important health development.



  • PLAN 5: No Conawapa

    03/17/2014 8:46 AM

    Just so we're clear, Plan 5 has nothing to with the 1959 movie.

    Plan 5 is Manitoba's Hydro's alternate vision of the province's energy future.

    Their preferred vision is the Keeyask generating station by 2019, a new 750-megawatt transmission line to the United States by 2020 and the Conawapa generating station by 2026.

    The Public Utilities Board is examining Hydro's plan and if there are better options to supply electricity to the region.

    But during a hearing last week into this preferred plan, Hydro presented a tweaked version: Plan 5. 

    And the Crown utility made sure everyone in the hearing room took notice, even a schlub like me (Plan 5 is also known as K19/Gas/750MW).

    Here's Hydro's Joannne Flynn, the manager of Power Planning, in her testimony to the PUB:

    "I'll just draw your attention to Plan 5 which appears on the left-hand side, and consists of Keeyask in 2019 followed by natural gas generation with a 750 megawatt interconnection, and is listed as including both the WPS sale and investment in the line," she said, referring to the transmission line and the recently announced power sale to Wisconsin Public Service.

    "The WPS sale could be designated as being supplied out of Keeyask, although we may new -- need new resources to meet Manitoba load, and in this plan those would be natural gas resources. So you do see a plan that has a WPS sale in it without Conawapa."

    Hydro's Ed Wojczynski, the senior executive responsible for the utility's submission to the PUB, took it a step further in his testimony.

    He a told the PUB that a final decision on Conawapa isn't needed right away, perhaps not for four years. (Which begs the question why the Selinger government included it on the terms of reference for the PUB hearing. Seems to me a lot of time and money is being wasted, but maybe that's just me).

    Here's Wojczynski:

    "In our view, we only have three pathways left that are viable options that are worth considering. Should we go with gas initially? Should we go with Keeyask initially without an interconnection? Or should we go with Keeyask and the 750 megawatt interconnection with the various sales we've been talking about? And in our view, those are the three decisions that we realistically have in front of us to make.

    "Should Keeyask be the next supply? We'd say, Yes, it should be, and in that case, Should we go down the 750 megawatt interconnection route, and make decisions at Con -- without Conawapa at some later date? We don't need to make those commitments today. And we think that that's a fairly logical approach to go."

    And on Plan 5? Wojczynski said:

    "From Manitoba Hydro's point of view, the overall conclusion is the -- the 750 megawatt line with Keeyask/Gas, and the various sales are justified in Manitoba Hydro's view."

    When I reported on this it appears it came as a bit of a shock over on Broadway.

    It appears it conflicted with the Selinger government's vision of hydro development. Gas generation, for the NDP, is icky and not in the cards.

    Hydro CEO Scott Thomson then fired off a memo to Stan Struthers, the minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro, that building Conawapa in 2026 was indeed still in Hydro's plan - gas was not.

    Thomson made it clear that Hydro indeed still subscribes to the NDP's vision of clean and renewable hydro-electric development.

    However, Thomson cushioned it with: "Our preferred plan has the flexibility to be adapted if our planning assumptions don't unfold as we anticipate."

    Now, given this apparent contradiction between Manitoba Hydro and the NDP, do you think Conawapa will actually ever get built?

    I'd say it's dead.

    So is the need to jack up hydro rates to pay for it.

    Perhaps most important, it appears Manitoba Hydro is doing exactly what it's mandated to do despite what the NDP tell them. 


  • Jim Poole: City loses one of its finest

    03/11/2014 9:57 AM

    I was riding my bike over the Redwood Bridge one evening last summer, heading towards Main Street, when I bumped in to Jim.

    In a parking lot just coming off the bridge were a bunch of police cars and uniform cops standing around. I thought I'd bumped into a major scene.

    In the middle of them was a tall officer in a white shirt and protective vest, Insp. Jim Poole. He had a big grin. His trademark grin.

    He spotted me and we shook hands. We'd known each other a while.

    Me being me, I asked him what the heck was going on. All these cars, maybe four marked cars and a couple of plain, there must be something up, right?

    Jim explained they were doing traffic enforcement. Or rather, he was teaching traffic enforcement.

    The idea is you do high visibility enforcement on a stretch of road you're guaranteed to catch people doing dumb things. And bad things.

    Bad guys drive, too, Jim said, and if you pick a pinch spot they can't avoid you, you got ‘em.

    Suspended drivers, impaired drivers, guys with outstanding warrants, people not wearing a seatbelt, some knucklehead with a bag of dope beside him. Drivers on their cellphones.

    That's the beauty of traffic enforcement, Jim said. It ain't sexy, but it can be productive if you put some effort into it. And the bonus is a lot of law-abiding citizens see police doing their jobs, making streets safer, and picking off the odd bad guy.

    I asked Jim why he was out there. Why he was pulling OT instead of at home with his feet up. He flashed his trademark grin again.

    Because he likes it, he said.

    Because he wants to show the younger officers that he can still work the street.

    Because if he wants them to do more traffic enforcement, he should, too.

    About then one of those knuckleheads came off the bridge too fast and swerved to miss one of the cruiser cars. His rear windshield was missing and the rest of the car looked like it needed a date with a Springfield Road auto crusher.

    The guy, his head shaved, looked like he had filled his pants there were so many cops looking at him. He continued weaving towards Main Street.

    A couple of younger cops looked at Jim to see if they should go after him.

    Jim nodded, go, and they turned on the roof lights and pulled him over a few seconds later.

    Jim watched, grinned again, and shook his head slightly at the wonder of it all.

    Jim Poole died March 7. He would've been just 53 in August. 

    Thanks, Jim. It was a pleasure and an honour. 


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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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