RMOW strikes tax balance we can all live with 

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Zero, 0 and 0.

It's safe to say that most residents of Whistler did not expect to have a third year of zero tax increases in the proposed draft budget.

It might be explained, in part, by the fact that we are heading into an election year, but with at least two councillors, Jayson Faulkner and Duane Jackson, already confirming that they won't run, and Roger McCarthy having "to think about it some more," according to Pique's feature on council in February, using the upcoming vote by way of explanation is too easy an out.

(No word yet on whether mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden will run again, but if I were a betting type I would bet...hmmm — think I'll stay away from crystal-ball gazing for now.)

Instead I was reminded this week of a budget open house in March of 2012.

At that meeting, which had a better turn out than most — including last year when round table sessions were cancelled due to lack of participants — Wilhelm-Morden said, "Your input is important and critical," to those attending and taking part in the brain-storming session.

Long-time resident and Ecosign founder Paul Mathews said at the time "Whistler is turning over a new leaf.

"I haven't been more positive in 30 years about our municipality right now.

"I'm stoked."

This week in Pique's letters pages Mathews writes: "To have three years without any increase in the mil rate is quite exceptional, and we residents are deeply thankful of your efforts and the efforts of (CAO) Mike Furey and municipal staff.

"There has been a significant change at municipal hall during the current administration."

A glance around the province at other municipalities show no others with zero tax increases over three years though a couple have managed in their budgetary processes to reduce proposed increases, or cut property taxes, by paring back on infrastructure improvements, or other such savings.

Last summer Pique commented on the Canadian Federation of Independent Business's annual watchdog report on spending, which put Whistler as the second worst offender for municipal spending growth in our region (poor Lytton was #1).

According to the report, which looked at statistics from 2000 to 2010, Whistler's real operating spending growth was 118 per cent, while the population growth was only 14 per cent. But these numbers are somewhat misleading, as our services are provided to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come here, not just the 11,000 or so permanent residents.

Municipal labour costs have also gone up with the recent wage settlement — $1.5 million in staff wage increases to cover a four-year agreement with employees spanning 2012-2015. A similar deal was struck for the municipality's Canadian Union of Public Employees members. There have also been additional operating costs with village maintenance related to increased visitation in the summer; last year was a record-breaking summer, due in part to the multi-million dollar festivals and events program spearheaded by the municipality. There are increased costs affecting purchasing due to the change in the Canadian dollar and energy costs have gone up slightly too.

It doesn't seem possible for one of the worst offending municipality to deliver on a zero tax increase.

So how did we get here?

According to the mayor commenting at council's last meeting it was hard work (and perhaps the legacy of tax increases of 24.5 per cent made by the previous council), and leaving nothing on the table. There were no sacred cows — the RMOW's vehicle replacement fund was oversubscribed releasing $450,000! This was a fund the size of which has been questioned by voters in the past.

And there are still 56 new projects in the proposed budget at a cost of $3.8 million.

There will be some people who, while celebrating the proposed zero increase in municipal taxes, harbour misgivings about the financial prudence of this in the long run. But with the citizens of B.C. facing increases in everything from BC Hydro rates, to ferry fares and even the price of stamps, the tax freeze resonates with all.

Perhaps another reason for those not residing here to cast an envious glance our way.

Sadly, few were on hand to commend council and staff on their work at the last council meeting where the proposed budget was revealed.

The community eblast, which always goes out the week before the council meeting, had no mention of the budget report. The council meeting agenda only had "2014 Budget Guidelines for the RMOW" under "other business," at the very end of the document.

Not much hint there for the public about such an important document — remember it's not just the tax rates, it is the proposed projects listings until 2018.

The RMOW website states on its homepage that "The Resort Municipality of Whistler is committed to transparency and accountability in its financial planning, and to providing opportunities for community engagement. Get involved and learn more about the 2014 Budget Process."

You can find the documents on the proposed budget and the department operating budgets at www.whistler.ca/municipal-gov/budget-taxes/resort-municipality-whistler-budget, as well as other materials.

And at the next council meeting, April 15, the budget will come forward again — that's as good a place as any to find out how our money is being spent, and perhaps give a nod of thanks for the financial break.

It is a very welcome relief for the families and residents of Whistler.

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