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Whistler balances its budget

Budget leaves municipality more than a million short for transit

Getting around in Whistler could get even more expensive for car owners and more frustrating for bus riders.

Council has chopped $1.1 million from transit and budgeted $400,000 in additional revenue from pay parking, all in an effort to balance the 2011 municipal budget.

While the good news is that the budget is now balanced after months of trying to meet the $3.7 million shortfall, the bad news is that there could be serious consequences, particularly for transit users.

Councillor Eckhard Zeidler waved the red flags at Tuesday's council meeting, cautioning of "potentially dramatic changes in transit."

With more than a million dollars out for transit, there could be fewer buses on the road and decreased service on certain routes.

"We are not out of the woods at all," added Zeidler. "We've just made it this far down the path and the woods get a little bit darker, in my opinion."

Speaking on transit specifically after the meeting, Mayor Ken Melamed said there is still a lot of work to be done and BC Transit is in the process of compiling several reports, which include a hard look at the costs of running the Whistler fleet.

"We"ll be continuing to work between now and the next season to effectively rebuild the transit system to comply with the budget that we have," he explained.

"We have got x amount of dollars in the budget so we're going to have to either fit the transit system to that amount or find other ways to fund transit."

There will be no changes to the bus system this year as the municipality puts up $700,000 in bridge financing for transit.

As for the pay parking, the new changes will be implemented on June 1 with information to those changes coming out later in the spring.

Councillor Chris Quinlan praised the work done by council and staff to balance the budget and stick to the four per cent increase in property taxes in the face of a looming multi-million dollar shortfall. The four per cent increase was the final year of tax increases approved by this council three years ago when it voted year over year tax increases from 2009 to 2011 totaling 19 per cent.

What council didn't know at the time was that come 2011 transit costs would skyrocket, resulting in a $2.3 million shortfall, and that pay parking would fail to deliver much needed revenues, coming up about $1 million short.

"It hasn't been easy for staff or council to deal with this? It wasn't painless," said Councillor Chris Quinlan.

"I think we're in a far better position than we were when we took this office."

Among the casualties in the several rounds of budget cuts was: funding for the Squamish commuter, park and village maintenance reductions, municipal staffing cuts and a delayed repayment of more than $700,000 for the capital costs of the debris barrier.

On the other hand, council has managed to amp up its contribution to its reserves to about 19 per cent of property taxes.

The mayor stressed the importance of this contribution to the resort's long term well being.

Putting money aside for capital infrastructure projects down the road is essential, particularly in light of the $125 billion infrastructure shortfall in the country as a whole.

What this means for taxpayers is that for every assessed value of $100,000, the homeowner will pay an additional $9. Utility fees will go up about $20 for properties.

The average overall tax bill, however, could stay flat to last year as school taxes, which as a reflection of assessed value, are expected to decrease.