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Municipalities seek more funding options

Financial tools, resort development major issues at UBCM

It was the first Union of B.C. Municipalities annual general meeting since the province replaced the Municipal Act with the Community Charter, and likely the last UBCM meeting before the next provincial election.

As a result it was a politically charged meeting, with municipalities flexing the new muscles they have been given and the province announcing new funding for tourism, while pointing to the economic successes of its policies. It all came down to money, with municipalities asking for a bigger piece of the pie, and the premier making an argument for getting the province’s financial house in order first, while increasing money for northern development and tourism.

"When the Charter came down, they (the provincial government) said we’re going to give you more responsibilities, but we’re going to give you the tools, the financial tools to make it happen. Well they did a good job downloading responsibilities but didn’t quite follow up with the financial part," said Whistler Mayor Hugh O’Reilly, who attended last month’s UBCM along with several members of council.

"They don’t want to give up a nickel. And I know (the provincial government) is stuck on the other end, trying to balance their own budgets. They don’t have the money to give it away to the municipalities.

"We’ve seen three or four years of belt tightening, and now the budget is balanced and we’re going to see a surplus, we’re going to see better times. I think that was a strategy they had, that it was going to be tough for a couple of years, but to use the time to get things going their way and then move ahead. It’s good news because we’re finally seeing some money… but it’s interesting to see how the electorate perceives it in an election year."

O’Reilly says other communities at the UBCM and FCM (Federation of Canadian Municipalities) are following in Whistler’s footsteps this year by asking the province and the federal government for new financial tools to help cover their rising costs, either through taxes or other economic initiatives.

Resort communities have higher costs due to the number of visitors using public services, says O’Reilly. Despite the amount of revenue it generates for the province, Whistler’s main source of income to pay for those services is property taxes, although new private-public partnerships, permits, fees, development cost charges, fines and a percentage of the hotel room tax do make a contribution to municipal coffers.

"It’s really interesting, but the New Deal, as they (the federal government) are calling it, is really very similar to some of the arguments we’ve made for funding tools that we’ve been making to the provincial government, that are specific to resort communities. It’s interesting to see it taken up by other communities across Canada that are just traditional communities as well…. We’re delivering so much service we need to partake in some of the other economic activities going on in our jurisdictions," said O’Reilly.

"At the UBCM we heard the mayor of Winnipeg asking for financial tools, and I’ve been saying the same things for 10 years."

Although the province dodged the issue of new revenue sharing at the UBCM, O’Reilly remains confident that new financial tools will become available as the province’s financial situation continues to approve, at least for resort communities.

"Everyone has been championing these causes, and we feel as a resort community we have a legitimate case, we’ve given them alternatives… what we thing might be viable options to assist communities, and how you determine what communities are appropriate for it, and we’re continuing those discussions," said the mayor.

"We’re in a bit of a different situation than other members of the UBCM, but it’s obviously not a bad thing that others are asking for the same things. The more of a rallying cry around these considerations, the stronger it makes our case to negotiate with the province."

Whistler Councillor Caroline Lamont sat through a presentation by Sandy Santori, the Minister of State for Resort Development, on the findings of the Resort Task Force and the best practices of resort development.

"The interesting thing about that speech was the level of interest," said Lamont.

"It was a medium sized room and it was just packed," she added, suggesting that a large number of B.C. communities are looking to become tourist destinations.

She also sat in with a meeting of the Resort Community Club, a group of resort communities in B.C. that was established to create common solutions for common resort community issues.

With existing resort communities struggling to address funding and development issues, Lamont says it’s interesting that the B.C. government is continuing to push the development of new resorts in B.C. without any new financial tools to service them.

"It’s great we’ve got all kinds of big plans for resort development and economic development, but we’re the ones who are really impacted the most on the front lines… and there’s no funding for us even to hire a consultant or staffing to deal with this growth," said Lamont. "Where Whistler is concerned, the Olympic bid was great, but we just don’t have the financial tools to accommodate and plan for this… which we were promised as part of the bid. It’s not that (the provincial government) is against any of it, they just haven’t given us financial tools to be a partner in the development, which is a huge frustration for us I think."

Lamont says the best practices developed by Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners and presented at the UBCM do have a lot of merit for towns looking to create or develop a tourist economy, but don’t yet address the financial needs of the communities. Without financial tools, communities are going to have a hard time delivering on their promises.

"Look at Sun Peaks’ model, with all the new resort development in that area, and a similar thing is happening in Big White. They want new taxes. Look at Fernie Alpine Resort’s situation, as they’re trying to grow. Look at Invermere, and the impact (the proposed) Jumbo (resort) is having. Look at Tofino, where they have a whole bunch of land yet to be developed and they don’t want one-offs, they want to have a more comprehensive approach, but they don’t have the resources," said Lamont.

"We’re all struggling. We want to go where the province is going, but we want to see some understanding of what the impacts are and some understanding of how we can pay for those impacts.

"Like Whistler, these (towns) are incredibly informed, they know the issues, they know what they need to do, they just don’t have the financial resources to do it."

One "new" source of funds that will be available to municipalities under the federal government’s New Deal plan is that local governments will soon be able to get a 100 per cent GST refund instead of just 50 per cent.

Other resolutions tabled at the UBCM advocate for a share of the property transfer taxes to pay for affordable housing initiatives, a share of fuel taxes to pay for infrastructure and transit, and a share of liquor taxes to pay for health programs and health services.

All told the UBMC addressed 194 resolutions in a three day period.

The group is even planning a name change this year to reflect the language in the Community Charter, which replaced the Municipal Act on Jan. 1. The recommendation was accepted to change the name to the Union of B.C. Local Governments.

The recommendations that were passed by a majority of the member municipalities at the UBCM will be presented to the provincial government for review.

Some of the resolutions passed in 2004 would affect Whistler directly, if the provincial or federal government adopts them, including:

• A recommendation to allocate police resources based on average annual populations rather than census number because of the population fluctuations that occur in some areas due to high numbers of seasonal visitors.

• Encouraging the prompt implementation of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ ‘New Deal’ plan, which gives full GST rebates to local governments while allowing them to share in a portion of gas taxes, as well as levy their own additional fuel taxes.

• Resolving to amend the Community Charter to allow municipalities more freedom in generating alternative sources of revenue, including fuel taxes to pay for infrastructure and liquor taxes to pay for health programs and services.

• Recommending that the province give municipalities a share of property transfer taxes to be used for affordable housing.

• A plan to index homeowner grants by setting a value limit each year that a property can increase in assessed value, based on provincial averages rather than market pricing.

• A provincial program to streamline the application process for municipalities to perform flood control by removing gravel, sand and silt from waterways. There was also a recommendation to create a flood protection infrastructure fund.

• Raising the age of consent for minors to 16 from 14 to protect them from sexual exploitation.

• Lobbying the provincial government to provide more funding for highway rescue equipment and for rescue workers who step outside their jurisdictions.

• Lobbying the provincial government to restore funding for brushing and mowing highway rights of way.

• Applying for tax refunds for municipal energy projects that encourage conservation or alternative, green sources of energy – to be funded by provincial and federal energy sales tax revenues.

• A program to reimburse locally funded fire services for the resources they spend performing emergency medical services, which fall under provincial jurisdiction.

• Restoring funding to regional health authorities to 2003-04 levels.

• Encouraging the federal government to provide more funding for affordable housing, with an emphasis on the needs of low-income Canadians, seniors, families and people with disabilities.

• Petition the government to give a high priority to the treaty process with First Nations.

• Encourage the government to complete the B.C. Rail sale to CN Rail as soon as possible, allowing municipalities to benefit from more taxes and passenger rail tourism. • Providing income tax deductions for emergency services volunteers who perform a minimum of 100 hours of service in a year.

• Altering property tax rates to increase assessments for "monster homes" and estates in rural areas, while providing tax breaks to people living in higher density developments.

• Exempting local governments from paying the Provincial Sales Tax.

• Allowing municipal governments to share revenues from commercial recreation tenures, while giving local governments more say over tenure applications to protect watersheds.

• Lobbying the provincial government to maintain the Bear Aware Program and provide funding to communities with Bear Smart programs.

• Requesting that the provincial government remove parking fees from provincial parks.

A complete list of resolutions is available online at the UBCM Web site,