Analysis

Will 'special one-time' financial assistance for flooded cottage owners become permanent?

Can the Gallant government's financial assistance to flooded cottage owners really be a "special one-time" program, or has a precedent been set for future New Brunswick governments dealing with future floods?

Gallant government may be setting precedent, offering $6,100 to help with cleanup of recreational properties

Cottage owners in the lower St. John River basin were among the hardest hit when the river spilled its banks from the Fredericton area to Saint John. This debris was from destroyed or heavily damaged cottages in the longtime summer community at Robertson's Point, near Jemseg.

When Finance Minister Cathy Rogers delivered the Gallant government's fourth budget in January, it included $5 million for a "Home Energy Assistance Program" for low-income families.

The program provides special $100 payments to help the poor with winter heating costs and was started by the former government of Bernard Lord in 2005 as a "temporary" two-year initiative. Thirteen years later, it's still there. 

In New Brunswick, temporary government help often transforms itself into a permanent cost, and on Wednesday, Environment and Local Government Minister Andrew Harvey wandered into that territory again by extending disaster assistance to cottage owners for what he believed was the first time in the 49-year history of modern disaster assistance in the province.

"Owners of recreational properties suffered greatly during this unprecedented flooding across our province," said Harvey.

"That is why we have created a special one-time financial assistance program for [recreational] property owners who experienced damages during the 2018 spring freshet flooding."

Assistance to cottage owners is coming in two ways — a maximum of $6,100 will be paid to owners for property cleanup, including if they or their family members do the cleanup themselves and bill government for their time at minimum wage.

In addition, owners with damaged cottages can request a special reassessment and tax refund if flooding is found to have lowered their property's value.

Harvey acknowledged the price tag for those two benefits is unknown, although he estimated 2,000 recreational properties may have been affected by flooding and could qualify for some help.

"We don't," said Harvey when asked if he knew the likely cost of helping cottage owners.

"Unless we know the uptake in that program at some point, it's hard to calculate what that may be."

Environment and Local Government Minister Andrew Harvey said it's too soon to know what the costs of the special program for recreational property owners will be. (CBC)

Helping cottage owners is especially expensive for the province because the federal government, which pays most of the disaster assistance costs in a major flood, has a firm policy against paying for any damage to what it calls "a non-primary dwelling."

In the past, because of a generous cost-sharing agreement, $50 million in eligible damage in a New Brunswick flood would cost the province only $9.6 million, with Ottawa paying the rest.

But add in $5 million or $10 million of eligible cottage compensation with no federal help and New Brunswick's flood cost grows significantly.

27th aid-generating disaster

Whatever the final price of offering cottage owners help this year may be, the larger question is whether a precedent has now been set for future governments dealing with future floods.

Can assistance to cottage owners really be a "special one-time financial assistance program" as Harvey claims, or, like home energy assistance and other temporary government programs meant to help in a difficult time, will it stick as a permanent cost?

Flooding is a large and growing problem in New Brunswick and cottages, which are often located on waterfront property, are frequently damaged.

According to federal records, this spring's flood is the 27th event that has qualified for disaster financial assistance in New Brunswick since 1970 and, in at least 23 of those cases, flooding has been the primary cause of trouble.

Retracting help is tricky

More floods in New Brunswick with more damaged cottages are inevitable and, although the official plan is that the current flood will be considered a special circumstance, retracting help that has been offered previously has proven difficult for New Brunswick governments in the past.

In 1980, the former government of Richard Hatfield offered Irving Oil a special property tax deal on crude oil tanks at its Canaport facility in Saint John to help the company through the 1979 oil crisis.

But the tax deal, worth $500,000 annually, remains in force today, even though the oil crisis it was designed to help with resolved itself more than 30 years ago.

New Brunswick governments have often found saying no to be difficult — especially after constituents know that yes has been said before.

About the Author

Robert Jones

Reporter

Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.