For the past 14 years, the Nicoll family has paid tribute to its late matriarch, Betty, with a memorial bench overlooking one of her favourite spots in Whistler at the far end of Lost Lake.
It was a lasting tribute that the family thought would be just that — lasting. When it was installed in 2002, the Nicolls were told by the municipality that the $1,500 they paid to install the bench and a plaque bearing the words, 'Sadly missed by family & friends," would be maintained in perpetuity.
Then in January John Nicoll received a letter informing him that upkeep costs were no longer sustainable and the bench was nearing the end of its 15-year lifespan. He was given a few options: have the bench and/or plaque returned to him, or pay $3,000 to replace it with more durable, environmentally friendly materials for a 10-year term.
He was shocked and saddened by the news.
"Originally there was no timeline to the program, obviously, because if you do something in memoriam you expect it to be there forever," Nicoll said. "It's just very upsetting and very disappointing."
The Resort Municipality of Whistler's (RMOW) Memorial Bench Program was created in 1990 as a way for people to commemorate a person or event. Forty-six benches were installed before the program was suspended in 2010 over concerns of rising maintenance costs.
According to the RMOW, the original wooden benches were maintained using an oil-based stain containing known carcinogens and required regular refinishing at an annual cost of $200 per bench. In 2013 a new Tribute Plaque Program was adopted by council. The new benches are made from 100-per-cent recycled plastic materials and cost $80 each to maintain, a savings of $6,000 a year.
It was decided at the time that the rising maintenance costs shouldn't be passed onto taxpayers.
"This is a wonderful program and I think it's best operated on a cost-recovery basis," said Coun. Jack Crompton, who sat on the previous council. "I voted in favour because the program wasn't financially sustainable and property taxpayers were picking up the bill."
But Nicoll, who said he was never consulted by the RMOW in advance of the changes, questioned why the bench couldn't simply be grandfathered into the new program. He also wonders why the benches were retroactively given a firm 15-year lifespan when his mother's bench remains in good condition.
"I feel like (the RMOW) has used numbers and used excuses, and there's really no rationale to (solving) this problem," he said, adding that if he was aware of the additional costs at the time the bench was installed, he would likely have been willing to cover them.
At the May 2013 meeting approving the tribute program, the RMOW's manager of resort parks Martin Pardoe told council that "particularly unique or difficult situations" would be dealt with on an individual basis. After months of frustrating back and forth with municipal staff on the matter, Nicoll is left wondering why his situation doesn't qualify.
"I live in a townhouse. My mother's bench to me is no use in a townhouse. It's something that should be outside and it should be something that all her friends who visit it on a regular basis throughout the year have somewhere to go. That's why we put the thing in," he said. "So if this is the way I'm being treated on an individual basis, I'm not enjoying it very much."
The RMOW said the tribute plaque initiative is "revenue neutral," with the initial $3,000 fee covering bench and plaque delivery, installation, maintenance, plaque production, administration and a slight allowance for inflation. However it isn't clear why the new program comes with just a 10-year timeframe compared to the 15-year lifespan attached to the older wooden benches if the new benches are made from more durable materials.
When asked this question, RMOW communications stated that if "a bench is in good condition at the end of the 10-year period and does not need to be replaced, then the funds would be used to purchase and install another bench at some other site to augment Whistler's park and Valley Trail bench inventory."
The municipality also reserves the right to amend the participation price of the program to "reflect economic conditions (i.e. inflation), demand and product durability."
"It's a proper cash grab," Nicoll said.
Olympic snowboarder Mercedes Nicoll penned a letter to council this week outlining the strain placed on her family.
"This is the only place in Canada we consider Betty's memorial and for it to be removed is unbearable to think about," she wrote. "This bench and location is part of our family."
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