In the 2005 tax notice sent to everyone fortunate enough to own property in Whistler, theres a note from Mayor Hugh OReilly stating that: "This past season has been the most challenging in the history of Whistler."
Few would dispute this. In fact, its actually been four challenging winters in a row for Whistler.
But while municipal hall has recognized the difficulties of the past winter in words, it has not followed up with action.
For the first time in years property assessments have not increased substantially. The average assessed value of residential properties in Whistler increased by only 0.36 per cent in 2005, while the average business property assessment decreased by 3.71 per cent. This is relatively good news for taxpayers. But in its business as usual approach, Whistler council has approved a 2.1 per cent increase equal to the rate of inflation in the municipal portion of property taxes. In other words, theres been no cutting back at municipal hall after the most challenging year in Whistlers history.
You could make the argument that the municipalitys revenues are mostly independent of how well, or how poor, tourism business is each year and therefore the RMOW doesnt need to adjust its tax rates. Sixty-three per cent of municipal revenues come from property taxes, and property values have not been noticeably impacted by a few challenging seasons.
But both residential and business property owners ability to pay property taxes are affected by another challenging winter. Most businesses revenues are, obviously, impacted and right about now business owners are assessing the damage. But many resident property owners also saw their hours of work and/or income decline this past winter. Many owners of condo-hotel units also saw revenues from their properties decline. While they may not garner as much sympathy as some others, the condo-hotel owners are a huge part of the Whistler economy.
The only source of municipal revenue directly tied to how Whistler is doing as a resort is the hotel tax, and that has been declining annually, from nearly $4 million in 2001 to $3.5 million last year.
Yet the municipality is in the fortunate position to be able to increase its projected revenue, and spending, from $45.4 million in last years draft budget to $47.2 million in this years budget.
Much of the increase in revenue comes from new construction which has increased property values. In fact, last years financial plan forecast increases in the assessment base due to new construction of two per cent for 2005; one per cent for 2006 and 2007; two per cent for 2008.
This years financial plan forecasts increases in the assessment base due to new construction of four per cent in 2005; three per cent in 2006; two per cent 2007-2009.
The capital program is also growing steadily. Last years proposed capital program was $15.8 million; the actual amount spent was $18.9 million. The proposed capital program for 2005 is $20.4 million. There has been money stocked away in reserves for all of the proposed capital projects, and there will be money coming in from VANOC when the really big capital expenditures are forecast in 2007 and 2008.
But taxpayers coming off the most challenging season in Whistlers history may wonder if $2 million for reconfiguring Gateway Loop is good value. Is $3.6 million to upgrade the day skier parking lots in the next few years a good use of their money? And the harder-to-kill-than-a-vampire Alpine Meadows fire hall is back on the books again, to be built in the next few years at a cost of $1.9 million.
This is not to suggest that the municipality doesnt need to ramp up some of its facilities and services as it gears up for the Olympics. The question is one of value. This is, after all, a municipality that created the office of deputy administrator two years ago and assigned a budget of $190,000. The administrator and his $200,000-plus salary has since been moved into a new position as the RMOWs liaison to VANOC and the search is on for a new administrator. Thats a lot of salary to be tied up in a few positions after the most challenging season in Whistlers history.
What taxpayers would like to have seen from municipal hall was some sign that the RMOW not only understood it was a tough winter but was prepared to show a little restraint too.