If public engagement is a cornerstone of open government, then the "public" part let its side down at the Resort Municipality of Whistler's first budget open house on Thursday, Dec. 6
Just 18 members of the community turned out to the Whistler Conference Centre to hear plans for the 2013 budget and ask questions of RMOW staff and council.
The open house was organized to provide access to financial decision makers, to discuss the RMOW's corporate planning process, and to look at trends impacting the resort's economy. It was part of the now year-old council's efforts to improve transparency.
Ken Roggeman, Whistler's director of finance, said the 2013 budget process is at the point where they are reaching out to the public, and seeking input on priorities.
"While we can't say where we are yet with regards to property tax changes or changes to user fees, we want to make sure you're aware of where we are," Roggeman told those gathered.
He began with key dates in the process. Council will hold a Committee of the Whole meeting on Jan. 22 to discuss more detailed budget information. This will be presented at a second public open house on Feb. 19, with a council meeting to discuss budget options the same day. Details will be tweaked at the March 5 and 19 council meetings.
Roggeman reviewed municipal revenues and how the RMOW will make decisions for the 2013 budget. RCMP, roads, snow clearing, water and solid waste management, property and parcel taxes, fees and charges, RMI and additional hotel room taxes, are all factored in.
"(Grants, interest, investment income) are really quite small when compared to the others, when looked at the general overall funds together, the general fund, water, sewer and solid waste, parcel and property tax make up almost 60 per cent of the total revenue of the municipality," he said.
Fees for access to facilities like the sports centre or cross-country skiing generate about $2.8 million in revenue.
In terms of public preferences, one indicator from previous consultations caught Roggeman's attention.
"It's interesting to note that people are more interested in changing fees paid for using community services than increasing property taxes," he said. "One of the questions we want to ask this evening is with regards to recreational uses and changes in that area."
When it comes to property taxes for the 17,000 properties or parcels in the resort, Roggeman said 66 per cent is residential class one, 31 per cent is business class six, and "other" three per cent is also in class six.
Primary municipal expenditures for the municipality include payroll, goods and services, water, sewer and solid waste.
Debt payments are also factored in, said Roggeman. The municipality has around $26 million in debt, resulting in debt payments of $2.9 million at this time.
Turnout was so low that roundtable discussions on the budget had to be abandoned for an open microphone question and comment session instead.
"I think the municipality went to a lot of work to put on the meeting and I was disappointed by the turnout," said Sue Adams, Whistler Grocery Store owner and chair of the RMOW's FE&A oversight committee.
She said it was clear that there was nothing concrete to respond to at this stage, but providing the basic information is important. "It was a good educational session.... Education is such an important part in this process for helping people to understand bylaws and other considerations," Adams added.
Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden hoped the lower turnout was an indication of the success of the council's budgeting process, accountability and quarterly reporting.
"Very often when there are huge turnouts, there's a lot of people waving angry fists, but of course it's a busy time of year," she said. "Of the people who did come, the questions that were asked were good, I'm sure we will get feedback by way of the forms that were handed out."
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