June 19, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Manitoba's provincial parks are swamped with visitors on three weekends every season, not because they are the most popular weekends, but because the entrance fee is waived.
The price of a three-day casual permit is just $12, but it's obviously enough to deter thousands of cost-conscious families from making the trip.
This despite the fact the province says parks are a natural resource to be enjoyed by all. It even promotes parks as amenities that encourage healthy living and prevent illness.
The truth, however, is that some people have more means to enjoy the province's beautiful lake country, particularly cottage owners, while others are shut out of the experience.
No one is suggesting a means test be applied to determine who should pay to get past the park gate and who should get a free pass, but the fact is that cottagers have not been paying the full freight for their privileged access to some of Manitoba's most beautiful country.
A $400,000 lakefront cottage in Whiteshell Provincial Park, for example, pays a total of roughly $1,100 in leasing ($800) and a service fee ($300), which covers garbage removal from the park, recycling, road maintenance, water pumps and other services. Winter snow removal is extra.
A similar property outside the park in a rural municipality might pay three or four times that amount in full property taxes.
This is unfair to the owner of a seasonal property outside a park, but it is also grossly unfair to taxpayers in general, who have had to underwrite the cost of maintaining parks for the benefit of a privileged few.
More than 12 years after coming to power and desperate for revenue, the Selinger government says it intends to address the imbalance by raising cottage fees in parks by up to $2,000 over 10 years while all other park fees will also increase as part of a plan to invest $100 million in parks over that period.
The cottage-fee increases are long overdue, but there are several problems with the plan.
The province says it will cap the increase on fees for cottagers at $3,000 to ensure they do not pay more than cottagers in surrounding municipalities. But why?
Why should a cottager with a luxurious property on the lake pay less in fees than someone with a back-tier lot near a river pays in taxes?
The problem is cottage leasing fees in parks are not determined by the value of the lot or the cottage. The rationale for the current system seems to have been lost in the mists of time.
If the government wants a truly fair system, it should introduce an assessment regime that would be used to determine the leasing fee and service fees to be paid for the privilege of owning a piece of paradise.
Many cottage owners might not object to such a system, but they resent the fact their new fees could be tied to municipal rates, which include education taxes.
Some cottage owners in municipalities, for example, pay $2,200 in education taxes, but only $800 in municipal taxes. So when Premier Greg Selinger says he will cap the rate at $3,000, it's because he's including the education portion of the tax bill.
Of course, the solution, routinely rejected by Manitoba's NDP, is to remove education from the property-tax bill.
Park cottages should still pay a lot more, but it should be based on property values and not linked to what their neighbours outside the park are paying.
An increase in fees might be hard on pensioners and those of modest income, but the same is true of homeowners in the city, many of whom can't afford the recent increases in service fees and property taxes or who only enjoy parks when admission is free.
The province should take another stab at this issue before it tables its budget to ensure greater equity and fairness for all.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 13, 2013 A10