The Liberal government is eyeing the user fees Canadians pay for federal services as a new source of revenue.

Since 2004, fees for everything from fishing licences to campsites have generally fallen farther behind the cost of providing those services. That's the year the User Fees Act was passed, compelling departments to justify to Parliament any proposed fee increases or new fees.

The requirements under the law have been so onerous, however, that they effectively discouraged departments from applying for increases even as costs rose. The result is that taxpayers are stuck with higher bills for private benefits enjoyed by individuals and corporations.

The federal Treasury Board wants to fix the law to smooth the way for more fee increases, putting the fee-cost arithmetic back into balance — and snaring fresh revenues that could be worth millions of dollars.

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Passports are among the dozens of federal services for which Canadians pay out of pocket in the form of user fees. An internal memo suggests user fees across government cover less and less of the true cost of providing the services. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The wide-ranging initiative, called the Modernizing of the Management of User Fees, is outlined in an internal document CBC News obtained under the Access to Information Act.

"While fees have not increased over time, costs have," says the heavily censored Aug. 8 memo for Scott Brison, the Treasury Board president. (Numerous sections of the document, available below, have been whited out.) 

"This resulted in an increase in the rate of taxpayer subsidies for government services that benefit private interests," it says.

The freezing effect of the 2004 User Fees Act was dramatic, says the memo. Prior to the legislation, there were an average of 10 proposals each year to increase fees. After 2004, that dropped to 2.4 proposals annually.

Increased paperwork

Changes brought about by the legislation added "significant time and effort" in paperwork for fee increases or new fees, which discouraged applications. Departments have also since been wary of a provision that requires them to cut fees whenever they fail to meet performance standards, says the document.

As a result, 84 per cent of existing user fees have not been revised in nearly 13 years, and now cover a diminishing fraction of the cost of providing the services.

The memo cites the example of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which in 2004–2005 collected $54,999 in user fees for services that cost government $694,641 — or only about eight per cent of the bill.

Nine years later, at $55,988 in fees versus $877,306 in costs, the ratio had worsened to 6.4 per cent.

Other departments, including Health Canada and Industry Canada, have been more successful in keeping the fee-to-cost ratio in balance.

The released sections of the memo do not contain an estimate of potential new revenues.

A spokesman for Treasury Board declined to provide details or timing for the initiative.

'Strengthening the accountability'

"While the matter of modernizing user fees is still under consideration, we remain committed to strengthening the accountability, oversight, and transparency of user fees," Alain Belle-Isle said in an email.

Sheila Fraser, then-auditor general of Canada, found in 2008 that there were about 220 federal fees reported publicly, worth about $1.9 billion to the federal treasury. Fees are charged on a wide range of services, including passports, licences for manufacturing drugs, marine navigation, citizenship, and national park entry.

Fraser's report, which made headlines that spring, criticized the government for overcharging Canadians for consular fees that were attached to passport application fees.

'Inappropriately subsidizing'

Less noticed was her warning that the government "may be recovering less than an appropriate amount from fee payers, or, depending on the fee, taxpayers may be inappropriately subsidizing a private benefit …"

Some reports have said the Liberal government is considering ending tax breaks — even selling airports — as it seeks out new revenue to control burgeoning deficits.

A previous Liberal finance minister looked to user fees to help balance the books. Paul Martin's landmark 1995 budget announced greater use of fees to help chop the federal deficit.

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Sheila Fraser, then auditor general of Canada, warned in 2008 that user fees were falling behind delivery costs for federal services. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

Despite the initiative to better align user fees to actual costs, last year Brison eliminated all search, processing and reproduction fees for Access to Information Act requests. His directive maintained the basic $5 application fee, unchanged since 1983.

The federal government reported it spent $64.6 million to process Access to Information Act requests in 2015–2016, and collected $386,390 in fees — or less than one per cent of total costs.

Parks Canada, meanwhile, eliminated all entry fees for national parks this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

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