It's an unprecedented three-peat for a Whistler council: holding the line on property taxes for three years running.
On Tuesday, April 1, as British Columbians faced numerous fee hikes from hydro rates to the price of stamps, Whistler council gave the nod to a draft budget with zero per cent tax and fee increases for the third year in a row. This, despite a $2.4 million increase in municipal costs for 2014.
Not only is it unprecedented, it also makes for a compelling track record in an election year.
"To come in at zero per cent increase three years in a row has taken a lot of hard work by all of you," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden with a nod to senior staff.
The draft budget, a surprise addition to Tuesday night's council agenda, also detailed the $17.5 million projects' list from the general fund in 2014. The largest portion of that goes to annual recurring projects ($6.5 million) such as the Fitzsimmons Creek gravel removal at $270,000 and the fleet replacement at $1.4 million. But there is also $3.8 million set aside for new projects (see below).
"It's ambitious," admits the mayor.
"This is our year of action."
Wilhelm-Morden is referring to the three-year council mandate dating from the last election — the first year was cleaning house and laying the groundwork, the second studying the lay of the land, the third year to be marked with action.
The zero per cent tax increase comes despite significant challenges and pressures on the municipal budget, not the least of which was a $1.5 million increase in staffing costs after a 6.75 per cent salary increase over four years negotiated last year for municipal staff.
When asked if zero property tax increases for three years running is prudent given inflation, the mayor said that Whistler has been able to make appropriate cuts and stay within the parameters of the budget guidelines. Plus, inflation has been low in the last three years.
She specifically reiterated that they are "not stealing from reserves." In other words, council is sticking to past policy of putting aside roughly 19 per cent to reserves or "savings."
But as budget considerations come forward council also wants to take a second look at the reserve policy, and so the draft budget proposes that $40,000 be set aside in its 2014 projects for outside consultants to develop a reserve policy.
"Surprisingly a lot of other communities haven't done a lot of work on reserves, a lot of them don't have big reserves," said Chief Administrative Officer Mike Furey.
Whistler's work, he added, will include looking at all municipal assets, what it will cost to replace them over time and then do the financial analysis on what funds Whistler will need over time to replace those assets.
In the last few weeks, staff and council worked hard to find a way to narrow the half a million-dollar gap in the budget.
Though there were challenges, there were also factors working in their favour — a slight growth in the assessment roll, parking revenues, a modest hotel tax increase, and the end of Whistler Blackcomb's Peak 2 Peak property tax exemption.
But to find a big chunk of savings, they specifically took a closer look at the RMOW's vehicle replacement reserve fund and determined it had been oversubscribed. That freed up about $450,000.
"There was too much money in it for what we needed to replace vehicles," explained the mayor. "So we don't need to contribute the way we have been contributing."
Despite some uncertainty around reserve contributions, Councillor Jayson Faulkner said the reporting back to council on municipal budget decisions is night and day compared to when they took office calling it a" sober and thorough" review.
"It's profoundly better and different than when we first came in," he said. "We'd never (have been) able to make those kind of decisions with the confidence we've had."
The 2014 budget will also include a "contingency budget" to be funded from the operating reserves for unexpected things like litigation.
That information will be disclosed in the public quarterly financial reports to council.
There are 56 new projects in the budget that will be funded from the general fund to a tune of $3.8 million.
• 19 Mile Creek Valley Trail Lighting — $38,400
• Alpha Lake Dog Park Rebuild — $125,000
• Conference Centre Expansion Study — $40,000
• Emerald Valley Trail Retaining Wall — $262,500
• Fitz Creek Early Warning System — $50,000
• Skate Park Rejuvenation Plan — $25,000
• Train Wreck Pedestrian Bridge — $75,000
Council is set to give the first of three readings to the Five Year Financial Plan bylaws at the next council meeting to April 15.
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