Budget frustrations continue

Whistler council, rightly, has been getting grief about its plans to raise municipal taxes. It’s not that the proposed 6 per cent tax increase was unexpected; the first public warnings came in the fall, and for anyone following local politics the signs indicating a tax increase was coming have been popping up for the last couple of years.

It’s more the way the proposed increase has come about in the last couple of months that has upset many people. It started with an open house on the budget at the GLC on Nov. 16. While budget open houses are usually non-events, drawing two or three people, the Nov. 16 open house drew about 50 people who voiced their concerns about a tax increase and municipal spending in general.

Three days later, in a 4-3 vote, council approved budget guidelines for 2008 that include a 6 per cent tax increase. That was down from the original forecast of a 14 per cent tax increase. That reduction was achieved through cutting some projects, reducing contributions to reserves and holding department budgets at the same level of funding as last year. Still, there is disappointment, and in some cases anger, stemming from four things: the appearance that council ignored the public input at the GLC; the disagreement among council members, signified in the vote, that a 6 per cent tax increase is justified; the refusal, to date, to consider a “traditional” budget with the tax increase at the rate of inflation; and municipal spending in general.

Mayor Ken Melamed has talked about a “conspiracy of events” that have put this year’s budget under stress. Many of these things are familiar: a couple of years of very intense capital spending, much of it compressed into a tight timeframe by the 2010 Olympics; soaring construction and labour costs; the loss of some revenue due to the provincial government’s decision on the class 1/6 tax issue; the continued growth of Whistler’s tax base is coming to an end as buildout approaches; and municipal labour costs are rising by more than $1 million over two years.

A question asked at the GLC session, and that remains unanswered, is whether these things are one-time events Whistler council and Whistler taxpayers will have to deal with for a year or two, or are they the new reality. The heavy capital program and the Olympic deadline have spawned a mindset that seems to say if we can just get through the next two years many of our problems will be over. And some of them may be, but not all of them.

The capital projects and their increasing costs are a source of frustration for taxpayers and council members. Labour, construction costs and deadlines have had a huge impact but over the years there has also been as much blundering as conspiracy. The present council and municipal staff have had to deal with some of the decisions, and non-decisions, made by their predecessors. The upgrade of the sewage treatment plant is perhaps the most glaring example.

When the previous council received a federal-provincial grant in 2003 it would have covered nearly two-thirds of the estimated $20 million cost of upgrading the facility. The cost is now $51 million, although the scope of the project has been expanded, under the present council, to include the composting facility. More importantly, the grant is in jeopardy if $20 million worth of work isn’t completed by March. The work just started last August.

The current council’s decision to invest in the composting facility, when the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District was interested in buying it, has also been questioned. It may turn out to be a wise, long-term investment in infrastructure by the municipality, or it may have been an unnecessary expense and an additional annual operating cost. We won’t know for several years.

The same could be said of this council’s decision to start making annual contributions toward a centre for sustainability. The investment so far is modest, $120,000 annually for five years, and is not the source of Whistler’s current budget woes. But the budget process has been established for a new facility that will have annual operating costs, including an executive director and staff. It may be, as proponents claim, that the centre for sustainability will become an integral part of Whistler’s infrastructure, generating enough additional visitors to the resort to pay for itself. We won’t know for several years.

Infrastructure, generally, is a good investment, and Whistler is at a time in its history when it needs to upgrade its water systems, sewage treatment plant, transportation routes, waste systems and stock of affordable housing. The municipality is doing all that, albeit at a time when events are conspiring to make those upgrades more expensive.

The question is: What infrastructure is necessary for the efficient operation of the resort municipality and what infrastructure is desirable? What do we have to have, what would we like to have and what can we afford to have? Those are complex questions, but taxpayers have every right to ask them.


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