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Resort communities want more hotel tax

Whistler not expecting a decision on proposed financial tools before the fall


By Alison Taylor

Whistler, along with other resort communities, wants a bigger share of the provincial hotel tax.

At least that's the proposal now before the provincial government. If awarded, this will give the resort community its much sought after Òfinancial tools,Ó which were one of the promised legacies for hosting the 2010 Olympics.

ÒWe've come up with (a proposal) that's unique and Canadian, that's a little different, that we think is reasonable,Ó said Mayor Hugh O'Reilly of the proposal for the municipality to receive more of the hotel tax.

The province collects an 8 per cent tax on all hotel rooms in B.C. In Whistler that tax is a little higher at 10 per cent. This is true of about 20 other communities too.

The province collects that 10 per cent and gives Whistler 2 per cent of the tax. For 2004 Whistler received $3.4 million of the $17 million that was collected from Whistler hotel rooms.

This proposal, explained O'Reilly, asks the province to consider giving more hotel tax to those communities that rely on tourism.

ÒIt's an incentive for communities to say no to other industries and really try and promote tourism, because there's a reward at the end of it.

ÒIt's consistent with the province's philosophy of growing tourism. We think that communities that are successful should be rewarded and allowed to be more successful in the future.Ó

O'Reilly would not reveal how much more tax Whistler is looking for but explained that for each resort community it would be a percentage based on how much that communityÕs economy relies on tourism.

ÒWe've given some outlines and suggestions,Ó he said.

Whistler's growing frustration over its lack of financial tools, promised by the provincial government during Olympic bid negotiations but yet to materialize, was blatantly obvious at Monday's council meeting.

Upon receiving the 2005 budget, Councillor Kristi Wells said: ÒThe legacy that was promised to us as we moved into the OlympicsÉ just hasn't been followed through on.Ó

She went on to say how challenging and frustrating that has been for council.

Later that evening, during a discussion about the high amount of taxes Whistler businesses pay, Councillor Nick Davies again raised the issue of financial tools.

ÒWe have to go after these financial tools more aggressively,Ó he said.

Even O'Reilly expressed his frustration the following day, pointing to a recent provincial decision to reduce taxes for people in the film industry as Whistler still fights for financial tools. It's all the more frustrating, he said, in these challenging economic times for the resort community when hotel revenues are down over previous years. Only three years ago Whistler collected $4 million in hotel tax instead of this year's $3.4 million.

ÒWe know in our own community that we're not at a healthy occupancy level,Ó he said. ÒWe're hovering around 50 (per cent). We'd like to get it back into the mid-60s to low-70s, (which) would be a very sustainable, healthy place for the resort community. And so, we need to spend money to do that. It'd be nice if we didn't have to go to the very people that are struggling (Whistler taxpayers) but take some of that revenue that's going to the province and reinvest it.Ó

Traditionally Whistler's hotel tax is used to fund tourism related initiatives, such as parks, money for Tourism Whistler and the free village shuttle. But the resort municipality wants to be able to do more with its financial tools.

The community has targeted a number of key initiatives through the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan process, now called Whistler 2020, which will make the community successful and sustainable in the years to come.

ÒJust lookÉ at Whistler 2020,Ó said O'Reilly. ÒWe have a huge number of agendas, everything from housing to trying to build an airport. There's a lot of stuff that's been suggested that would help make the community more successfulÉ So I think that we can articulate that we have lots of great initiatives, that probably don't have funding at this point in time, that these funds could be utilized for.Ó

O'Reilly said the proposal before the government may have more teeth now that a number of other resort communities are working together and asking for the same thing.

ÒWe've always gone to Victoria on our own,Ó he said. ÒWe now have the collaborative. We have the small emerging communities recognizing this is probably good for them in the long run, which makes it easier from a political point of view.Ó

Phone calls to the premier's office were not returned before press time on Wednesday. In the Liberal platform for the next four years, however, Premier Gordon Campbell promises to increase the share of the hotel tax which goes to Tourism B.C. Currently 1.65 per cent goes to Tourism B.C. The Liberals propose to nearly double it to 3 per cent Òto ensure its marketing revenues grow as the tourism industry grows.Ó

Council is not holding its breath for an answer on its financial tools before the provincial election this month but are hoping to hear back this fall, when the legislature resumes.