Budget 'smoke screen' disappears with new council 

Community feels it's being heard as council works to a zero tax increase budget

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Whistler is "turning over a new leaf" when it comes to spending taxpayers' money, according to Paul Mathews. And he's not alone in that assessment.

Craig MacKenzie said there's now "meaningful dialogue" with the community about how that money is spent. Bob Adams said there's a new "genuine interest" in listening to what the people of Whistler have to say.

And Sandy Black said council has turned the "emotion dial" way down when it comes to the oft-emotional topic of the municipal budget.

That's the feedback from four long-time businessmen in the community after Monday's first open house on the 2012 municipal budget that drew out about 25 community members on a snowy winter's night.

It was like many budget open houses of the past — large-scale graphs and charts on the walls, free coffee, and municipal staff on hand to answer questions. But there was one major difference.

For the first time in a long time people in Whistler feel like they are being heard, that someone is listening and, more importantly, open to change.

"I haven't been more positive in 30 years about our municipality right now," said Mathews. "I'm stoked."

MacKenzie called past budget open houses a "smoke screen" — they may have looked the same as Monday's open house but there was no sense of openness and transparency.

"They (this council) want the public's feedback and they're open to it," he said. "My sense is it's a real exercise for them.

"It's the most open council we've ever seen, and that comes from a former councillor!"

Last month council, who will be passing its first budget of the term in May, pledged to hold the line at taxes and utility fees. That comes on the heels of four years of successive tax hikes totaling 24.5 per cent.

"It wasn't easy," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden of balancing the budget with no tax increases and no utility fee increases. "It was a challenge."

The finance and audit committee at the municipality, which used to meet once a year, has been meeting every two weeks in an attempt to look at the proposed $74.5 million budget in minute detail.

Part of the challenges this year come from the $800,000 gap in transit funding, the decrease in proposed revenues from the parking lots totaling $768,000 and the potential million-dollar decrease in RMI (Resort Municipality Initiative) grant money from the province.

On the flip side, this new council inherited the 2011 service review, done by the last council, that found more than $1 million in savings both from cutting service levels in the municipality and increasing fees.

The finance and audit committee, and staff, has also found a further $400,000 in efficiencies and savings in the operational budget, over and above what has already been found in the service review.

All the little things add up, said Councillor Duane Jackson, who chairs the committee.

"Every department turned over the rocks," he said, adding that the general managers made a lot of suggestions.

"Don't put it all on council," he cautioned, adding that staff played a significant role in finding the additional savings.

When asked after the meeting if residents would notice the cut in service levels, the mayor said:

"I think there will be some changes in service levels but I don't think they're going to be onerous. I don't think they're going to be draconian. We've really been trying to look back of house rather than services that people use on a day-to-day basis to achieve our savings."

But perhaps the thing that has changed the most is the shift in corporate culture in the hall.

"We've made some very, very good steps in that regard," said the mayor.

What she means is, where once there was a tendency to only look inwards with a myopic view of the world, now the municipality is looking to get a feel for what's happening in the broader community and how its decisions have a rippling impact outside its walls.

"We're turning that around and there's been a recognition that those days are over," she said.

The details of the budget are not yet finalized and were not ready for the walls at this week's open house. So, it's not clear yet what projects will make up the proposed $17 million capital projects budget, for example.

It is also not clear what kind of back of house services at the hall will be changing to achieve savings.

The evening, however, served to illustrate on a high level the work that has been done to date, including a $12 million commitment to reserves (the municipal savings accounts) for infrastructure maintenance and replacement.

Sandy Black, while he believes this council seems to be more engaged in the budgeting process, said he was looking forward to next year's budgeting process.

"The bus has left the station (in the 2012 budget)," he said.

"I think they (council) will have complete impact on 2013."

That's when council can start at zero-based budgeting — where all expenses are justified — and find even more savings, said Black. There simply hasn't been enough time for that this year.

Council must approve the budget by mid-May.

In the meantime, residents and taxpayers are encouraged to email questions to budget@whistler.ca

The mayor told the crowd: "Your input is important and critical."

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