It was a mild turnout at the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s (RMOW) budget mingle information session on Thursday, Nov. 9, with about 20 residents turning out at the Whistler Public Library.
In what was described by the RMOW’s director of finance Carlee Price as a “nuts and bolts” budget, the municipality is proposing tax and utility fee increases to help make up lost ground from previous years of low rates so critical infrastructure can be renewed without heavy cost incursions in the near future.
As proposed, the municipal property tax rate will rise by 8.18 per cent, while utility fees will go up by five per cent for solid waste, four per cent for water, and seven per cent for sewer—but these numbers could yet change, as the RMOW is only midway through the budget process.
In opening remarks for the presentation, Councillor Jen Ford described the budget process as hard work, “especially with the current state of the economy.
“Inflation is on everyone’s mind—this is not something we take lightly,” she said.
“We have to plan for the future, and we have to address the needs of today. But we don’t want all of the burden of the cost of replacement of our critical assets to be a moment in time; this is something we spread out over generations.”
Chief administrative officer Ginny Cullen also spoke of the economic headwinds facing Canada, and the impact on municipal operations when talking about external factors in the process.
“Our costs are inflating … This is specifically hitting the cost of our affordable housing projects, and the care and maintenance of our RMOW buildings and infrastructure, so it is an important consideration and a stress on our budget,” she said. Cullen also talked of general unpredictability in the global economy, ongoing challenges to institutional sturdiness when faced by climate change, and affordability.
TAX INCREASE PROPOSED
But most of the information came from Price, who primed the attendees with contextual and comparative information showing where Whistler stands next to other municipalities and their own tax rates in a lead-up to explaining the rationale behind the 8.18-per-cent increase proposed for 2024.
In short, Price said Whistler was under-collecting taxes for years in relation to other municipalities, essentially kicking the can down the road, especially considering Whistler, as a relatively young community, was not used to renewing capital infrastructure—expenses that were coming.
“In the last decade, the scale [of budget priorities] has been weighted towards minimizing the amount of tax collected,” Price said. “We have better information now and can make better choices, and there’s still time to make up for lost ground.”
Price’s presentation covered everything from explaining the high level of amenities enjoyed by Whistler locals to the priorities of spending. As far as minimizing tax increases, there are ongoing demands from both those wanting more for their money and those wanting to hold onto more of their money, she said.
“Budgeting, at its heart, is weighing the balance between those in the community that believe that taxes are far too high, and those in the community that want more and more things from the municipality,” she said.
To that point, staff describe the 2024 budget as being infrastructure- and asset renewal-focused through the topping up of reserves.
As it exists now in preliminary form, the RMOW has forecast a $92.2-million operating budget, with a $24.1-million capital budget, $24.3-million utilities operating budget and $20.2-million utilities capital budget.
All that adds up to the 8.18-per-cent increase, which according to the RMOW “is equal to approximately $103 per million dollars of assessed value on a market residential property, [and] $529 per million on a business property.”
TRACKING PROPOSED EXPENSES
Breaking down some of the numbers presented by staff at the mingle, figures across the board are budgeted to go up by varying degrees.
For the office of mayor and council, the RMOW has budgeted $674,244, up by a slim 2.26 per cent from 2023 when $659,300 was budgeted. (2023’s actual expense is as yet unknown as the year has not ended).
The office of the CAO and associated administrative functions (such as human resources) is $2,103,472, up by a meaty 12 per cent from 2023, when $1,877,840 was budgeted.
But the two above departments are small potatoes when compared to community engagement and cultural services, budgeted at just over $15.5 million (up 10.9 per cent), or climate action, planning and development at $20.8 million (up by 11.2 per cent).
The big item, and the focus of the budget, is infrastructure services, which has $27.5 million budgeted, an increase of 6.5 per cent from 2023 when there was $25.8 million budgeted. In 2022, that department’s actual expense came in at $24.3 million.
More granular data gives a good look at what sort of projects that money is going to—including some 121 separate projects funded from the various operating and capital reserves, as well as from tourism-derived funds.
Still to come is a council review of projects for 2024; a presentation to council on a more final budget on Dec. 19 (“so close to Christmas, what a gift,” joked Ford in her remarks); and a final five-year plan going to council on Jan. 9.
The RMOW wants more of your input: Residents are encouraged to stay in the conversation by engaging through the RMOW’s Engage website (engage.whistler.ca), by communicating with councillors, and emailing the budget team. The RMOW is after information on resident priorities, what they want to see more of, and notably what they want to see less of, too.
Coun. Cathy Jewett took a moment to speak to Pique after the mingle, and encouraged locals to get more involved and up to speed on the budget process.
“Council only has so much time with this information,” she said, noting early engagement through the budget survey helped give the RMOW an idea of where the community’s priorities lay, but more input is needed.
And gaining insight into the things residents would be OK seeing cut from the budget is just as important as hearing what services they want expanded or maintained, Jewett added.
“It’s important to hear from staff, but it’s also super important to hear from the folks that live here and pay taxes to ask: ‘what do you cut?’” she said.
THE 2024 PROJECTS
The list of ongoing projects on the agenda through 2024 runs long at 121, with money coming from the municipality’s various reserves and funding streams.
Here’s a quick look at just a handful:
• From the General Capital Reserve, $20,000 is budgeted for public art repair. Whistler owns and curates more than 40 pieces of public art, with those funds budgeted for their ongoing care and repairs.
• $155,000 is on the books. Literally. The RMOW is budgeting a healthy sum to go towards the Whistler Public Library to continually update its selection of physical and digital media collections.
• The municipality also has a hefty sum of funds going towards the upgrading and maintenance of its computer systems and associated infrastructure that ensure the secure transport and storage of data, with $452,000 coming from the general capital reserve. The funds also cover third-party audits, assessments and contract services for network architecture and security methodology.
• From the general operating reserve, the RMOW is planning to spend $20,000 on Indigenous cultural awareness training for staff and council along with another $35,000 on “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” though the latter file does not elaborate. Both of those expenses are going through the CAO’s office.
• The municipality is also putting aside some $45,000 to develop a priority habitat management strategy as an alternative to doing assessments on a case-by-case basis as developments arise in the valley.
• Another $75,000 is listed under “targeted engagement,” with the project described as designed to “support innovation and pilot new engagement activities in the community,” with the Whistler Sessions falling under this project.
• From the MRDT funding stream, which is drawn from charges to hotel stays and therefore tourism-facing, the RMOW has nine projects on the docket, including $26,000 for new lamppost banners, $157,000 for village enhancement (explained as ongoing repair to the Village Stroll, among other things), as well as $150,000 for Valley Trail maintenance and another $200,000 for general improvements to parks.
• From recreation works charges, the RMOW is plowing $591,655 into the Meadow Park Sports Centre to extend its life. A large chunk of that money will go towards replacing windows, but some of it will go towards detailed design development of a “heat recovery loop system” that, according to the project description, will harvest waste heat and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the facility. The adjacent Meadow Park also gets another $3.25 million from the Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding stream to replace the existing water spray park and playground.
• Also from the RMI (which is tourism-facing funding), $62,284 will go towards new interpretive panels; $150,000 is going into the Whistler Conference Centre; $174,877 is for three interconnected projects along Alpha Lake; there’s $239,000 for washroom rejuvenation; and the Rainbow Park rejuvenation project gets $866,061, to be completed in 2024.
• At the nuts and bolts level of the project list, there’s $1.65 million going into sewer main upgrades and another $250,000 for annual upgrades across the system as smaller capital works.
• The sewer capital reserve has another two seven-figure projects on the books, with $2.15 million going to water treatment plant upgrades, and another $1.5 million to optimize treatment.
• In transportation, $1.59 million is earmarked for upgrading roads, while the municipality has $2.14 million set aside for its fleet replacement program in 2024.
• From the water capital reserve, more than $3.7 million is going to the south Whistler water supply project, while $300,000 is for water well upgrades at Emerald wells, community wells, and Alpine Meadows wells.
This is just a small snapshot of the projects on the list. Read the full list at whistler.ca/budget.