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Sask: Right Move, Wrong Message

Author: Lee Harding 2008/12/14

Whenever the government announces something on a Friday, it’s almost guaranteed to be bad news. On December 12, Christine Tell tried that strategy with hopes everyone would check out for the weekend instead of hearing her message. In case you missed it, let's just say you won't be a happy camper. Fees are going up drastically in provincial parks next year, enough for the province to rake in an extra $1.25-million.

Although admission fees are staying the same, many other fees are going up. Daily camping will cost an extra $2. The cost of some seasonal campsites will rise from $830 to $1,500. Reserving a site will cost $10 instead of $5, and a new fee has been added for cancellation: $7. The trailer storage fee has jumped from $85 to $150, and hall rental fees will double.

Truth be told, there may have been good reasons for the increases. Provincial parks cost about $20-million last year, of which only $11.3-million were recovered by fees. On top of this province sunk an additional $7.4-million in capital upgrades last year, in addition to $3.5-million in park system management. And, as with everything, costs are always going up.

Unfortunately, Tell  did a worse job of explaining the fee hikes in talking to the media. Standing in the hall of the legislature, the Minister of Tourism, Parks, Culture and Sport, had a much different, and less believable, explanation: “If we don’t put the value of the parks—actually charging for what the value is, there’s more a psychological impact, ‘Maybe there’s not any value here, maybe we’re not going to go.’”

Perhaps NDP MLA John Nilson said it best: “I think that’s a very, very strange comment.”

Yes, some people associate a higher price with a higher quality product when it comes to clothes or electronics. However, this principle hardly applies to parks.

It wasn’t the first time the Sask Party had used poor messaging around the idea of camp fees. While in opposition, they railed against the NDP over the so-called “wiener roast tax.” The $3 charge was levied each day for campers who burned firewood. The measure was introduced in 2004 and brought in about $375,000 annually until the Saskatchewan Party axed it during their first year in power.

This, however, was not a tax. It was a fee for service, and the two are very different. Added revenues from the Sask Party’s fee changes will taken in three times as much additional revenue as the $3 campfire charge ever did. Yet, the Premier is still calling that “the wiener roast tax.” For their part, the NDP are calling the Sask Party’s fee hikes “the unhappy camper tax.”

Yet, the province does have its allies. In the government’s press release, John Froese, chairman of the Saskatchewan Regional Parks Association, said he was “ecstatic” that the province was raising its rates. Apparently his organization has lobbied the government for years to raise its provincial park rates to a level with which regional parks could compete and still stay viable.

This means regional parks will also be more expensive next spring. Froese thinks campers will keep coming despite the higher rates, though his words are hardly comforting: “There’s a bit of a negative feeling the first year, but it goes away quickly.”

Yet, as tough as it is to swallow, Tell had good reason to make the changes. The Monday following her Friday fiasco, she was back with a better explanation. She said that while most provinces have 60 percent of park revenues from user fees and 40 from government, Saskatchewan was far short of that. Even with the new changes, user fees will only cover 56 percent of revenues, leaving 44 to a taxpayer subsidy.

This means that for the taxpayer these moves makes sense. Unfortunately, so long as the terms “wiener roast tax” and “unhappy camper tax” stay in circulation, the case for higher fees will be mired in misconceptions.