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Milking that same old cash cow

HALIFAX, N.S. - Even though Christmas has long since passed, Nova Scotia drivers are getting a few gifts from the government. The problem is, the gifts are non-refundable as they come in the form of w...

HALIFAX, N.S. – Even though Christmas has long since passed, Nova Scotia drivers are getting a few gifts from the government. The problem is, the gifts are non-refundable as they come in the form of whopping new and increased existing fees.

Nova Scotia Finance Minister, Neil Leblanc dropped the bomb on the region’s trucking industry when he announced 24 revenue measures set up to help balance the budget. The list includes new and revised cost-recovery measures totaling $17.8 million, with many taking effect Apr. 1.

Leblanc explains government has taken steps to consult with business and industry to the greatest extent possible to help minimize surprises and to allow time to better plan for changes.

During his budget address to the Legislature on Apr. 4, Leblanc said, “Mr. Speaker, we’re not balancing the budget by cutting. Were balancing the budget by focusing on Nova Scotia’s priorities … by getting out of money lending industries … by investing in new efficiencies … by basing decisions on evidence … and yes, Mr. Speaker, by calling on those who benefit from government services to pay more.”

The 2002-03 budget will see a two cent increase in fuel taxes and an allocation of $62 million in spending for the Department of Transportation and Public Works bringing the total amount to over $85 million to be spent on roads, highways, bridges and ferries.

Of the new fees and recoveries introduced, those affecting the trucking industry are: an annual commercial carrier registration fee of $50, commercial carrier audit fees of $60/hour, a driver’s licence fee increase of $11, and a 40 per cent increase for the registration of heavy commercial vehicles.

Sounds like the run of the mill government scheme to make things balance? Sure. Unfortunately, of those 24 fees, the four listed ring in at approximately $8.5 million and Ralph Boyd, president of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association (APTA) assures the lion’s share of that will be borne by the trucking industry.

“We’ve been discussing that (commercial carrier registration fee) with both the APTA and TANS (Truckers Association of Nova Scotia) for a couple of years as we move forward towards the safety ratings certificate that is required of the National Safety Code. We made it clear to them (Boyd and Dave Roberts, executive director of TANS) that at some point we may have to charge a fee for this registration of carriers in order to cover the certificate,” says Paul Arsenault, the director of driver and vehicle safety for Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations.

“I told both of them myself when we were talking with them that we were going forward at some point with a fee, we didn’t know what it was. This was about a year-and-a-half ago.”

Roberts, says if the province decides issues based on the information gathered by their bureaucrats, “there is a serious problem.”

“If Mr. Arsenault’s consultation with industry was a casual conversation sometime in the past, he is not sure when, without documentation and facts to back any decision he deems necessary, then the province needs a new director of driver and vehicle safety who is actually willing to discuss issues in a proper forum with the proper representation,” he says.

Boyd insists his association has a “fairly reasonable” dialogue with other administrations within the region. “The situation is our door is always open but true discussion should be just that, true discussion,” he says.

Roberts says something needs to be done, and soon.

“The 40 per cent increase for heavy commercial vehicle registrations, the price of diesel as it stands, the current insurance rates … Unless government is prepared to increase the rates for the hauling of materials, the fee structures will need to be revisited,” says Roberts.

If the fees are added on to the tolls truckers pay when they go through Nova Scotia, “it is pretty darn expensive to operate a trucking company in Nova Scotia in comparison to other provinces,” says Boyd.

In a price comparison, the province of New Brunswick was going to charge $27.50 to travel 195km – in Acadia truckers pay $12 to travel 45km.

Lionel Clark, director of loss control and safety for Clarke Road Transport (a division of Clarke Inc.) in Halifax says the 40 per cent increase for commercial vehicle registration would mean an increase of about $80 a truck, if they pay under the International Registration Program (IRP).

“But for a commercial truck in Nova Scotia … (this) would mean an increase of $800,” he says. This increase would amount to a registration fee of $1,800 to $2,000 a year. Clark says in his company’s case, the O/O’s take care of their own licensing, while there are approximately 30 company units.

“For the O/O that just stays within the province that’s a big expense,” he says.

Kevin Finch, communications adviser for Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations says all Nova Scotians have a part to play in getting the province back on its feet and paying down the $11.6 billion debt.

“No one is being singled out per se but its been a very long time since fees have been raised in Nova Scotia and as far as I understand, I think we are still in a competitive nature with other jurisdictions,” says Finch.

Boyd assures it is still getting expensive to truck in N.S. “You can’t just look at the fees because, yes, their provincial fees may have been a little less than someone else’s. They have now brought them up to match the norm,” he says.

“Even if Nova Scotia was to come out with some form of dedicated taxation, in comparison to the other provinces, we’re going to be paying more because they are enjoying a fine revenue from their toll highway. They have never been interested in reducing the toll on that highway for commercial users.”

Clark admits that every carrier in the province would be opposed to any type of fee increase. “This is just a way for government to bring in any revenue to clear up some of their debts. This is how they are going to balance their budget,” says Clark.

But all hope is lost as Boyd says there is nothing that can be done about it.

“The government is hell bent to balance the budget. Who are they balancing the budget for? Do you think taxpayers are going to be any happier because they balanced the budget?” he asks.

“I think the public wants governments to be better managers of the stream of revenue they presently have. Not increase the streams of revenue. If they are asking us to become better businessmen, they should become better businessmen.”

Unfortunately, the feeling is the same amongst many in the industry – the new fees and recoveries will only be passed down to the end user, the consumer.

“The trucking industry right now is squeezing every penny and so are the owner/operators that are out there. The cost of fuel and everything else, it’s got to come from somewhere,” says Clark.

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