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Fee hikes hitting home for cottagers

The Aurora Borealis is seen in Whiteshell Provincial Park, which is Manitoba's largest at 3,300 cottages. Owners are anxious about incoming fee increases.

BORIS MINKEVICH / FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

The Aurora Borealis is seen in Whiteshell Provincial Park, which is Manitoba's largest at 3,300 cottages. Owners are anxious about incoming fee increases.

Cottagers at Whiteshell Provincial Park are waking up to the fact phased-in provincial park fees are set to climb to between $4,000 and $5,000 on most properties.

The province hasn't sent out invoices yet but it recently opened a website where cottagers at 18 provincial parks across Manitoba can find out what they will be charged over the next 10 years.

Many can't believe their eyes.

In Whiteshell Provincial Park, lakefront cottages will be hit with annual increases of $400 every year for the next decade.

The Whiteshell Cottagers Association says it works out to about a 750 per cent increase for lakefront owners, and 250 per cent for backlot owners. Most Whiteshell cottages are lakefront.

"I am very surprised. I find that just unacceptable," said Al Bezak, who owns a non-winterized cottage on Falcon Lake he uses five months of the year, and which receives virtually no services. He has found out his park fees will be more than $4,000.

"You have to consider a lot of us are retirees. I'm a senior. I would love to have a 750 per cent increase (in his fixed income) over the next 10 years, but that's not going to happen."

Neither are cottagers comforted by the $3,000 cap the province willplace on park fees. The province admits the fee ceiling is temporary -- the Manitoba Conservation website says the cap is "subject to review annually."

The Whiteshell Cottagers Association wants Manitoba Conservation to open its financial books to show how it arrived at the fee increases, and to show a breakdown of costs for the services cottagers receive, which they contend are minimal.

It also wants a breakdown per provincial park, president Tom Walker said.

The government has refused.

A portion of the park fees also goes to the government's general revenue.

"We don't know how much goes into there and we're really concerned about that," said Tom Walker.

The province will receive $660,000 in additional revenue from Whiteshell cottagers alone the first year, $1.3 million the second, $2 million the third, and $2.6 million in the fourth year, Walker said.

The association has hired a lawyer. "If necessary, we will litigate to get them to come to the table," he said.

The province maintains it allowed park costs to get grossly out of whack compared with revenue. It costs $8 million to operate the parks but government receives less than $2 million in revenue from cottagers. It expects cottagers to pay half of the park costs.

However, a government spokesman wouldn't give a breakdown of the figures. Camping fees will be decided on a year-by-year basis. Fees paid by resort owners will be reviewed in 2014, a spokesman said.

The Whiteshell association tried in 2005 to get the provincial government to open its books, and the courts agreed, but the Selinger government has still not abided by the ruling, Walker said. The Parks Act requires the government make available detailed financial information on park costs.

"It's a bit of a red flag, isn't it?" said Dave Crabb, president of the Manitoba Association of Cottage Owners, of the province's refusal.

The fee increases affect cottage owners from Clearwater Provincial Park near the Pas, to Moose Lake Provincial Park south of the Whiteshell. Cottagers affected on Lake Winnipeg include those in Grindstone and Gull Lake provincial parks. The Whiteshell is the largest, with 3,300 cottages.

Mo Tipples, at Grindstone Provincial Park -- which has 450 cottages, the second-most for a provincial park -- said her park fees will go up by about $2,000, to $2,600 per year. She understands park fees must rise but "we'd like to know if the fees are fair according to the services."

Falcon Lake cottager Bezak said his park fees will exceed his property taxes in Winnipeg "and in the city I have many services: street lights, paved streets, water and sewer, emergency services, waste disposal. We don't get any of that at the lake."

It's expected cottagers will be required to start paying the new park fees by March 31 but that has not been confirmed yet by the province.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Monday, January 6, 2014 at 10:40 AM CST:
Corrects figure in first sentence.

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