Lloyd Hines. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

“What a crazy world,” says provincial NDP leader Gary Burrill, “that border protection officers in the United States aren’t being paid because of the government shutdown and we are debating whether the Nova Scotia government should be paying them. Something is wrong somewhere.”

The question of Nova Scotia taxpayers footing the bill for the salaries of a handful of U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees in Bar Harbour, Maine was raised by reporters following today’s meeting of Cabinet ministers, the first since the holiday break. Bay Ferries, which operates the Cat passenger vessel between Yarmouth and Maine each summer, has until the end of this month to negotiate a deal with the town of Bar Harbor to replace Portland as its U.S. destination.

The deadline was extended until January 30 so a new Maine Governor could be sworn in. The Town of Bar Harbor has been negotiating with Bay Ferries to pony up approximately $3 million in U.S. dollars to upgrade the terminal the town is buying, as well as pay the salaries of a handful of border customs officials.

Bay Ferries president Mark MacDonald has said moving the seasonal service from Portland to Bar Harbour will actually save Nova Scotians money on fuel costs because the distance is shorter and the price of renovating the Portland ferry terminal would have been nearly twice as much.

What is aggravating is the secrecy surrounding how much money Bay Ferries is actually asking Nova Scotia taxpayers to provide to make the move to Bar Harbour. Nova Scotia’s Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal minister Lloyd Hines is refusing to put a figure on that. He says the U.S. Customs and Border Service have requested the province keep salary negotiations confidential. Asked if he thinks Nova Scotians should pay the wages for U.S. border agents in Maine, Minister Hines said he doesn’t consider the ask “unreasonable” but simply the cost of doing business.

“We feel the value for the Nova Scotia taxpayer is there,” said Hines, “as evidenced by the announcement by the Rodd Group to invest $5.5 million dollars in re-opening the Colony Hotel and putting $3 million in the existing facility which the management has attributed to the Maine-Yarmouth ferry.”

Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston is an accountant by profession. At the very least, he says the Liberals should come clean about how much money Bay Ferries is asking taxpayers to provide for border agents and facilities to operate out of Bar Harbor.

“Nobody expects the ferry will be free but they want some transparency around how much it is costing so they can assess whether there is value for money,” said Houston. “The Minister said he is not sure how much it will cost (the move to Bar Harbor) but he is paying it. That really sums up the leadership on this file. They don’t know how much it is going to cost but they don’t seem to care. They have an obligation to care before they write the cheque.”

Houston also wants to know how much the ferry has cost taxpayers since the previous government signed a 10-year agreement with Bay Ferries in 2016. The Transportation minister refused to say how much subsidy Bay Ferries is looking for this year. Ridership has been increasing and was up 21 per cent last summer compared to 2017. But the improvement hasn’t come cheap. The operating subsidy to Bay Ferries was $11 million for four months last year and $13.7 million in 2017. It’s been reported a total of $32 million was spent to keep the Cat in the water during its first two years.

While an argument can certainly be made the ferry is a key piece of infrastructure that underpins tourism in this province, the question may be whether it’s worth it at any price.  Especially when you don’t know the price.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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