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Tax breaks for Olympic venues in the works

Province asks for legislation; Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre also to get exemption

Following a heated discussion around the council table, the municipality is look at giving tax exemptions for the Whistler Sliding Centre and the Whistler Athletic Centre for the next five years.

The province asked for the tax breaks because they are concerned that money they gave to help run the two venues will just come back to the government through taxes.

“If you look at your tax bill, a good portion of it is provincial government, so they would have been basically putting their money up and then taking it back,” explained chief administrator Bill Barratt, who met with the province to discuss the issue.

“The province was concerned because obviously neither they nor the feds put their money in to funnel it off… The whole intent was to have those funds go towards the operations of the facilities for athletes and everything else.”

Barratt said a five-year time frame gives the Legacy Society three years after the Olympics are over to understand their operating costs and their revenues. The exemption can then be reviewed.

But if the municipality does not grant the five-year exemption, explained Barratt, the other option is for VANOC and the Legacy Society to apply to be taken off the tax role.

“If we give them a five year exemption… then you have the flexibility of reviewing it at a later point in time in a more informed manner. If it is off the tax role, you’ll never have that option because it will be gone,” he explained.

The Nordic Centre, which lies outside of Whistler’s jurisdiction, has also received a tax exemption.

Council gave first, second and third reading to a tax exemption bylaw on Monday night, with councillors Nancy Wilhelm-Morden and Eckhard Ziedler opposed.

The bylaw included the two future Legacy Society venues, as well as the Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre and the Whistler Mountain Ski Club.

Both Wilhelm-Morden and Ziedler said they were not opposed to giving the Whistler Mountain Ski Club a tax exemption, but they were not sure about the other two organizations.

“I would be prepared to consider a tax exemption for the sliding centre and the athletic centre in 2011, once the true long-term operations of the facility has been started and there has been some true start up as an operation beyond the Olympic operation,” said Wilhelm-Morden.

“Right now these facilities are being owned by VANOC… VANOC is not a charitable organization, they are not a philanthropic organization, they are not a non-profit organization…. We have increased our local taxation levels here this year. We have cut community services, and we are proposing to give a tax break to the Olympics. That is exactly what we should not be doing.”

Property tax revenue from the four organizations is estimated at $600,000 this year, and $630,000 in 2009, with the sliding centre and athletic centre accounting for 90 per cent of the total.

Councillor Tim Wake pointed out that the Olympic facilities have never been seen as profit-making ventures and the tax exemption has always been part of the plan. He also said that the tax exemption is also about partnership.

Added Mayor Ken Melamed: “No one is disagreeing that this is a new fiscal reality, but on the other side of the ledger there is a true partnership here.

“There has to be a way for the Games Trust and the Legacy Society to contribute back, but not by knee capping VANOC at this point in time. I think they have been good partners. They don’t have additional resources and funds.… We have built a positive relationship with VANOC that I am interested in maintaining.”

Melamed also said VANOC can be considered partly philanthropic for its support of athletes.

As for the Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre, Zeidler said if the Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre is a non-profit society, he would like to know where their profits will go.

“Just because someone has challenges with their capital budget, and they go well over budget, that does not mean I have to bring our taxpayers along for the ride,” said Ziedler.

“Suffice to say that at this junction, I will not be supporting any of these tax exemptions. Those days for me are pretty much over. We are in a new era in Whistler.”

Council can grant tax exemptions to charitable, philanthropic or other not for profit corporations. The Sliding Centre received a tax exemption in 2008. The Whistler Mountain Ski Club has been exempted since 2005.