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Happy Local Government Awareness Week

If you didn’t already know it was Local Government Awareness Week it will probably hit home when you get your property tax notice in the next few days.

If you didn’t already know it was Local Government Awareness Week it will probably hit home when you get your property tax notice in the next few days.

Of course, a large number of Whistler residents don’t get property tax notices, because they can’t afford to own a place in Whistler. Still, many will bear the brunt of their landlord’s property tax increase this year – an increase largely due to the increase in the assessed value of Whistler properties.

The municipality, after increasing property taxes each year for the last several years, kept the increase to zero this year. The problem is property assessments are up, as much as 100 per cent for some properties, therefore tax notices are up.

The provincial government, which increased school taxes by two per cent this year, had less compassion for Whistler property owners and residents than did the municipality. The two per cent increase and the increase in property assessments has meant significant increases in school taxes for property owners – who were already paying 68 per cent of the school tax bill in School District No. 48 two years ago.

The province has a formula that allows for a different school tax rate when the property values in one part of a school district are significantly higher than the rest of the district, but Whistler didn’t qualify. Of course, the province is scrambling to provide enough money to keep the school system operating, so it doesn’t have much sympathy for Whistler right now.

But there has been some recognition local governments need more tools for generating revenue. Earlier this month federal Finance Minister Paul Martin, citing a federal task force report on the matter, said: "I think if you take a look at the cities’ revenue source – having to rely on property taxes – clearly a new deal is required."

Martin said municipalities need resources to deal with the downloading of costs and responsibilities from provincial governments, but he wasn’t willing to commit federal money to municipalities.

Meanwhile, the provincial Liberals are expected to introduce their long-awaited Community Charter before the legislature recesses at the end of the month. The Community Charter promises municipalities new tools for generating revenue, but there are few details. One can only hope it delivers more than did the differential school tax formula.

Of course there really is only one source of revenue for all three levels of government, and no government wants to give up what it already has. The feds say the provinces should help out the municipalities; even though the Chretien government has a surplus it has no plans to give any money back. The provincial government in B.C. will be running budget deficits for the next couple of years so it’s in no position to give up any of its revenue.

That leaves the Community Charter as the only hope on the immediate horizon for B.C. municipalities. What the Community Charter promises is the ability for municipalities to impose some sort of new tax or user fee. But increasing municipal revenue is, at least in Whistler’s case, only half the problem.

Affordability is increasingly becoming an issue in Whistler, just ask anyone who received their tax notice this week. If the Community Charter allows Whistler to create a new tax or user fee, it should be applied to visitors to the resort. It is one of the fundamental problems Whistler has faced for some time: the municipality has to provide services and infrastructure for visitors as well as residents but there is no revenue formula to serve this demand.

Of course there are more property titles, and property taxpayers, in Whistler than there are residents, but there is still a revenue shortfall.

Tourism in Whistler generated more than $375 million in government revenues in 2000, but 91 per cent of that money went to Ottawa and Victoria. Only 9 per cent stayed in Whistler.

Whistler has never received any help from Victoria, and only a little support from Ottawa, in creating affordable resident housing. Yet the municipality, with the help of private developers, has had considerable success in building affordable housing. Revenue from property taxes has paid for the recreation centre and will pay for part of the new library and museum, but the community will have to match municipal funds to build the library and museum and is still raising funds to pay for Millennium Place.

In order to keep Whistler affordable to those who make the resort and town run, and in order to keep the resort attractive to visitors, new sources of municipal revenue are needed now.