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The true cost of Marine Atlantic

Marine Atlantic’Cost recovery rates remain a hot button issue for Port aux Basques council. – © J. René Roy

PORT AUX BASQUES – Mayor John Spencer surrendered his chair in order to deliver a passionate speech about the federally mandated Marine Atlantic cost recovery during the last meeting of council on Tuesday evening, Sept. 8. Spencer has been arguing against the 65 percent cost recovery rate since taking office and is an ardent, vocal opponent of the practice, which he considers a financial burden for the resident taxpayers of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In his opening remarks, Spencer took aim at Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) for classifying the issue as a Category C.

“It simply means they’ll observe, for want of a better word. They won’t be involved in any advocacy effort and I feel that was an injustice,” said Spencer, who wants to go back to MNL and push for stronger support. “Being a Category C, it will die this November at convention and I feel that MNL has not taken up this cause at all.”

The Mayor shared that he seized the opportunity to move the issue higher on a provincial scale by speaking directly to Premier Andrew Furey during his recent visit to town. He stated that he is constantly writing letters to MPs (Members of Parliament), and received a reply from Gudie Hutchings (Long Range Mountains).

Hutchings stated in her letter that she meets regularly with Marine Atlantic’s board, and that among her most pressing concerns is safe and affordable passage. The MP pledged to continue to raise the topic with Marc Garneau, Minister of Transport, at every opportunity.

“My colleagues at Transport Canada are also very aware of the concerns around cost recovery,” wrote Hutchings.

After speaking with Furey, Spencer followed up via letter and shared the response from Bernard Davis, who was recently appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Service. Davis shared similar concerns, particularly about the province’s overall ability to recover from the negative financial impact of COVID-19 should the ferry service implement another rate hike. In his letter of support, Davis said he would arrange a meeting with Marine Atlantic in the near future to address the issue, something that failed to impress the mayor.

“I wrote him back this afternoon and said, ‘You’re starting at the wrong place, Minister’,” relayed Spencer. “Marine Atlantic Inc. can’t do a thing.”

The mayor reminded council that Marine Atlantic is ordered by Transport Canada to meet its annual cost recovery targets, which is currently 65 percent for the Gulf service, 100 percent for the Gulf on-service offerings such as meals, and 100 percent on the Argentia service.

Spencer did offer to partner with Davis to petition Garneau and the federal government to keep its 2015 election promise. Prior to his 2015 win, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau lambasted then Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Tories about cost recovery and swore to address the issue once taking office. Instead the rate hikes have continued unabated and above the standard cost of living increases.

“Seeing that at the end of this letter really bothers me, because it tells me that they’re not aware of the issue,” said Spencer. “So where do we go? Should we go back to MNL and say we want this as a Category A?”

Coun. Justin Blackler questioned how MNL even decides how to categorize issues that are raised by its members. At a previous MNL conference, Port aux Basques’ presentation about the impact of cost recovery on the entire province received 99 percent support from the membership.

“What gets you from a C to an A? Is it just the way you present it or support you get from the membership?” asked Blackler. “If you got 99 percent support, what else do you need for an A rating?”

“The problem with it the first time around was that Municipalities didn’t even want to deal with it, didn’t want to put it on their list,” said Coun. Jim Lane. “We fought and got it on there.”

Spencer stated he would investigate the criteria for ranking issues and share any clarification with council. Meanwhile he wants to look at touring areas of the province to present the town’s cost recovery model in order to educate people and drum up support.

“I’m still shocked that people don’t get it,” said Spencer.

He noted that prior to the meeting he signed a cheque on behalf of the town that included an additional 280 dollar cost recovery charge.

“Every taxpayer in this town just paid that company, that went on that ferry, a subsidy,” stated Spencer. “It was a large trucking company.”

It’s standard practice for suppliers to pass extra shipping charges related to cost recovery onto their customers. Spencer said he took the liberty of forwarding a copy of that invoice to those he’s been e-mailing regularly about cost recovery to prove that point.

“They’re saying cost recovery doesn’t affect us? It affects every one of us,” said Spencer.

This year’s MNL conference is scheduled for Nov. 5 and will be held virtually.

Meanwhile Marine Atlantic’s Corporate Communications Officer Darrell Mercer stated via e-mail that it’s still too early to determine if there will be another rate hike this year.

“No final decisions have been made at this time. We complete our budgetary review and projections for the coming year during the fall months. We will be in a better position to provide an update following the completion of that process.”

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