Council to debate budget publicly 

20 per cent over three years outlined in Five Year Financial Plan

Council will be taking some of its closed-door budget discussions public next week when it officially considers the municipal budget, complete with its sizable tax increases.

The open discussion will shed some light on why each individual member of council is considering the 20 per cent tax increase over three years.

"There's been yelling, screaming, slamming on tables," said Councillor Chris Quinlan of the confidential budget meetings over the past several months.

"We're all looking for the magic million dollar savings. That doesn't exist right here, right now."

What does exist is a Five Year Financial Plan that calls for year after year property tax increases totaling 20 per cent.

So, a home assessed at $100,000 will pay a $16 increase in year one, $14 in year two and $8 in year three - or $38 over three years.

A home assessed at $500,000 will pay an $80 increase in year one, $70 in year two and $45 in year three - or $195 over three years.

Council will consider the financial plan bylaws at Tuesday's meeting.

While he is not presupposing the outcome of that debate right now, Mayor Ken Melamed said the likelihood is council will stick with the plan as proposed. It has debated the plan behind closed doors with all the tough questions laid out on the table.

No stone was left unturned, Melamed said. Each line item was scrutinized. Municipal managers were asked to justify their expenditures.

"We feel we have very few other choices," said the mayor.

Several factors have played a role in creating a budgetary nightmare at municipal hall.

Revenues have been lost as a result of provincial decisions. More revenues are down as a result of the economy. And expenditures, specifically the capital planning related to getting ready for the 2010 Games and the municipal operating expenses also associated with the Games, are higher than ever before.

Exacerbating the problem too is the fact that Whistler taxpayers have enjoyed relatively few tax increases in the past as municipal hall bolstered its revenues with development charges as building thrived in the resort. That development is coming to an end, along with its associated financial perks.

With more public consultation this budget cycle than ever before, with the letters to the editor in the papers, and the concerns raised to them personally while around town, council members are well aware of the public sentiment.

"I think generally the people of Whistler are looking to us... to be as frugal in these times as we possibly can," said Tom Thomson. "Times are tough. People... are wondering what council can do and maybe what (it is) prepared to do."

Therein lies the challenge. When questioned in detail, said Councillor Ted Milner, it would seem that every expenditure, be it an operating or a capital expense, is "a sacred cow" to someone.

"I'm trying to flush out what's really important, what isn't," he said.

Councillor Grant Lamont said council has been pushing for the justifications from staff on each decision.

"I would really like to see us being able to question every decision," he said.
"Staff has, I think, had a very loose chain as far as making decisions on things."

He is also concerned that not all budget information has been forthcoming.

"I feel that we've been shown the high level stuff but I really would like to get down to the brass tacks," said Lamont.

Second-term Councillor Ralph Forsyth echoed that sentiment.

"There's some detail that I would have liked that I haven't seen," he said.

But the deadline to pass the budget, a deadline set by the provincial government, is looming.

The Five Year Financial Plan is online at www.whistler.ca. Tuesday's meeting will take place at Millennium Place at 5:30 p.m.

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