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NDP Wants Niagara Parks Commission shutdown

Tories say body has become ‘a loser financially’

Ontario’s opposition parties want to know why the Niagara Parks Commission has turned into a money loser, with the NDP saying it should be shut down completely.

The commission came under fire last year for giving the operators of the Maid of the Mist tour boats a 25-year contract extension without seeking competitive bids, which prompted the province to step in, cancel the contract and order a new tendering process.

New Democrat Peter Kormos, who represents the Niagara-area riding of Welland, said the boat lease was typical of what he called “a century-plus of closed-door, back-room-boyism, political patronage and nepotism” at the commission.

“The failure to tender that contract is but a symptom and the real answer is to dissolve the Niagara Parks Commission and put it as part of the Ministry of Tourism,” said Kormos.

The Maid of the Mist deal is just one example of how the parks commission has failed to make sure it gets the best deal for Ontario taxpayers, said Progressive Conservative critic Bob Runciman.

“I think there’s a whole series of questions and concerns about the operation of the commission for the past few years,” said Runciman.

“A number of the decisions that have been made have resulted in it becoming a loser financially, which should be a concern to everyone because it’s provincial taxpayers who subsidize these things.”

Losses since 2007

The Niagara Parks Commission had been a steady source of income for the province until 2003, when SARS put a huge dent in tourism in southern Ontario and resulted in a nearly $9 million loss.

It was back in the black the next year, with $3.8 million in net profit and another $3 million in 2005. But the commission reported a $650,000-loss in 2006, a $1.4-million loss in 2007 and a $3.5-million loss in 2008.

The commission notes it provides $20 million a year for policing and maintenance of Niagara parks, and blames the recent losses on a worldwide decline in tourism, tighter security rules and confusion surrounding the new passport requirements at the U.S. border.

“I think we’re suffering from the same malady as tourism is generally, but I think it’s more pronounced in Niagara Falls because of our heavy reliance on American visitation,” said parks commission general manager John Kernahan.

“The new documentation requirements came into effect June 1, and overnight we saw a 50 per cent decline in visits from the States.”

An external review last year by KPMG found ethical breaches and perceived conflicts at the parks commission and recommended changes to the way the commissioners conduct business.

‘Anachronistic body’

Kormos said he believes the only way to end the controversy surrounding the commission, and allegations that it made private deals with businesses it favoured, is to shut it down.

“The stench of the prospect of corruption has lingered over this body for far too long, and there doesn’t appear to be any interest within the board itself to address that,” said Kormos.

“It’s an anachronistic body and it’s time for it to be dissolved.”

Kernahan dismissed the opposition attacks, and said the commission had not made any bad business decisions that ended up costing taxpayers money.

“Anything we built in the last 10 years has been profitable and provided additional employment,” he said. “The facts just don’t justify that [criticism].”

Jim Williams resigned as chairman of the commission last month after disagreeing with Tourism Minister Monique Smith about the tendering process for the Maid of the Mist tours, saying the government was moving too fast with a June 2010 deadline.

Williams did the right thing by quitting, said Runciman, who added the operations of the board and the commission need to be closely examined.

“The chairman has fallen on his sword, but I think there are other serious questions that go beyond the board to the administration itself,” said Runciman.

“The minister herself, by stepping in, has confirmed a lack of confidence in the board and the administration to handle this in an appropriate way.”

Smith was unavailable to comment.

This article was originally published by: CBC News

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