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There is no business as usual

I’d like to take this opportunity to say a few kind words about our current mayor and council. No, seriously. The past three years have neither been the easiest, nor the most opportune time, to govern Tiny Town.

I’d like to take this opportunity to say a few kind words about our current mayor and council.

No, seriously.

The past three years have neither been the easiest, nor the most opportune time, to govern Tiny Town. Six years ago, we were invited to swim with sharks. It sounded like a good idea, even fun, at the time. And while we haven’t been eaten alive — yet — we have been swimming as fast as we can in currents that seem to run faster still as the moment of truth approaches. Every time someone tosses us what looks like a lifeline, there seems to be a weight attached. Just call me chum.

With a respectable voter turnout, we elected a largely new council and a most unlikely mayor. They’ve worked hard, enjoyed some successes, learned a few lessons along the way about how politics and perception are often at odds with what seem like “rational” decisions, and learned even harder lessons about how a good decision can turn around and bite your collective butt when it’s mangled by poor to non-existent communication.

Their shining moment came when they unanimously, and forcefully, declined Larco’s request to rezone the subterranean vacuum the company’s let languish for a number of years now. The decision, effectively killing the efforts of Larco and London Drugs to bring discount diapers to Whistler, pissed off more than a few people who firmly believe the organizing principle of life is shop ’til you drop. It didn’t stop the chaining of Whistler, didn’t keep Nike, from opening stores just like the ones you can visit, well, everywhere else in the world, and didn’t bring any new, interesting, one-off boutiques to town. But it did draw a line in the retail landscape across which no big box shall cross and that is good for our future, even if it means the live-to-shop crowd have to traverse the Sea-to-Hell construction zone to save a few bucks.

And while many would also disagree, their efforts on this year’s budget approached heroic. I’ll let you catch your breath while you wonder if I’ve lost my mind. The easy thing would have been to run with the 14.5 per cent property tax increase that would have been required to make up the unexpected shortfall in revenue visited upon us when the provincial Liberals changed the tax rules on strata hotels. They didn’t do that. They made some tough choices and hammered the tax increase down to a modest, if unpopular number. Of course, they so botched their messaging and timing — op. cit., poor to non-existent communication — they managed to piss off everyone and turn a heroic moment into a goatfest. Baaaa-d.

But without delving into the decisions taken that might generously be called unpopular, let us leave the past and turn toward the future. Looking at the future right now is a bit like welding without goggles — stare at it too long and it’ll scorch your eyeballs. Think about it too long and it’ll make you crazy.

We’ve spent a bazillion dollars preparing for a party that looks like it’s going to arrive right in the middle of a global recession the likes of which haven’t been seen in most of our lifetimes. Even the most optimistic economic prognosticators are talking about the world crawling out of this mess no sooner than late 2010… and none of them are willing to speculate how deep a hole we’ll be crawling out of.

We live in a town that depends on discretionary income for its livelihood. We don’t manufacture anything except fun and we don’t sell it cheap. There are a lot fewer people shopping for expensive fun this year than there were last year and there’s no solace to be found in the fact that there are probably more in the market for it this year than there will be next year.

We are in what even realtors call a buyers’ market. The inventory of unsold, single-family homes is twice what it was at the beginning of the year. That wouldn’t be so bad if people who live and work in town could afford those homes but hardly any of them can. That leaves second-home owners, speculators and people looking for a safe haven for their money as potential purchasers. Many of them are over-leveraged and getting frantic margin calls from their brokers — at least the ones still in business. As recession sets in and people scramble to deleverage, second homes go on the market right after those falling stocks. Inventories rise, values drop, the tax base thins.

Not to worry; we have our new, increased cut of the hotel tax. Now we just have to fill the rooms. We’d better fill the rooms because we’ve pledged that money to projects already under way.

All this builds up to the question du jour: What qualities should we be looking for in the people we elect to manage things for the next three years?

Three come immediately to mind. Thrift, flexibility and leadership.

There is no business as usual. Anyone pretending there is needs to have his/her meds adjusted. The whole world is hunkering down and now is not the time to flip the municipal spending lever to hyperdrive. Nor is it the time to be giving the kind of tax breaks to the likes of VANOC and the Squamish-Lillooet Cultural Centre that were doled out Monday evening. If the mayor and administrator really believe now is the time for those kinds of moves, we need to organize an intervention to save them from whatever cult has taken over their higher brain functions. Every expenditure, every revenue deferral needs to be viewed through a lens of uncertainty about the future. If it isn’t absolutely vital, don’t do it.

Having a great plan is wonderful. Executing that plan — by definition plans are made in the past — without carefully considering changed circumstances and peering around the corner into the future, is just dogma. We can’t afford dogma. We need flexibility. The compactor centre, spiralling out of control, and paid parking are both good ideas with environmental creds. But not, as has been suggested by mayor and council, at any cost.

Finally, we need some visible leadership. Right now, I don’t know who’s running Whistler. I suspect VANOC’s got its foot on the gas pedal but I’m not certain who’s got the wheel. Often it seems to be our municipal administrator and senior staff, rarely the mayor.

It’s been said in the past that Whistler’s sustainability rests on three equal legs: environmental, social and economic. I’d like to suggest one of those legs is a bit longer than the other right now and blithely ignoring that discrepancy — and believing you’re doing a heckofa job — is perilous.

We shall see.