The tools arrive; make sure we use them properly


May 27 was a "momentous" day for Whistler, Mayor Ken Melamed said Monday as he announced that the provincial government had finally agreed to provide Whistler and 12 other resort communities with more of the hotel tax.

"We are thrilled – goose bumps, actually," the mayor said of the long-awaited "financial tools."

And congratulations are in order. The revenue Whistler will receive from the hotel tax will triple and the restrictions on what that money can be used for will be loosened somewhat. In dollars, that means Whistler’s share of the hotel tax should go from about $3 million to more than $9 million this year, assuming the legislation is passed in the fall.

The province, meanwhile, will give up approximately $10 million in revenue to the 13 resort towns that qualify for the additional hotel tax.

At the same meeting Monday, council committed $100,000 of hotel tax money to a new "office of cultural coordination," which will be the lead agency "for the arts, culture and heritage enhancement objective of the Whistler 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Strategic Plan." There was no discussion of the new position, although council members did comment on how important the arts and culture are and will become to Whistler and that this year’s total Community Enrichment grant to the Whistler Arts Council of $255,000 was money well invested.

The office of cultural coordination will be working throughout the Sea to Sky corridor leading up to 2010. It’s not clear what sort of financial commitment other communities in the corridor will be making to this office.

However, when council approved a Community Enrichment grant for Whistler Animals Galore that was less than what was requested the comment was made that WAG has become a regional animal care service and the communities of Pemberton and Mount Currie should think about helping fund the organization.

These comparisons are not meant to refute the importance of the arts, culture and heritage, nor to suggest that this isn’t money well spent. Indeed, developing arts and culture was identified by the community as a priority in the late 1990s. Councils since then have backed up that commitment with dollars. And the new office of cultural coordination may be the best $100,000 Whistler spends this week.

The worry is that this is another in a series of new financial commitments that Whistler has made in the last five or six years, while at the same time complaining that we need additional sources of revenue.

It took nearly 10 years of lobbying, cajoling and possibly even some threats before a provincial government agreed to give up money to Whistler. The efforts to divert that revenue stream from Victoria to Whistler began back in 1997, after the council of the day toured Colorado resorts, not in 2002 just before Whistler agreed to co-host the Olympics. And while we may consider the current and previous provincial governments obstinate for taking so long to recognize Whistler’s funding needs, it’s only relatively recently that a provincial government has been in the position where it could afford to give up some revenue.

During that same period Whistler’s main source of revenue, property taxes, kept increasing as property values climbed and the number of taxable properties grew. Even as the overall Whistler economy declined between 2001 and 2005, revenue from property taxes increased.

And so did Whistler’s financial commitments. Some of the capital commitments, such as the expansion of the sewage treatment facility, were anticipated. Others, like the Millennium Place debt and the decision to fund 100 per cent of the library building, were not. Even the near-term development of Lots 1 and 9 was not anticipated by the municipality a year ago.

The decisions, and non-decisions, by previous municipal governments that have led us to the point where we now have several capital projects underway at a time when construction costs are going through the roof is unfortunate. But the immediacy of the construction cost problem should not hide the fact that all of these facilities will bring additional annual operating costs to the municipality and its taxpayers.

The Olympics have also imposed additional costs on the municipality. The office of the cultural coordinator is the latest; Jim Godfrey’s position as Whistler’s executive director for the 2010 Games is another obvious one.

Again, each of these new costs can be justified – indeed, this space has argued in favour of some of them. The point is, over the last several years Whistler has incrementally, and sometimes haphazardly, made a lot of new financial commitments without long-term funding to back them up.

The additional hotel tax is great news, but better long-term planning of municipal spending is also needed.

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