Candidates’ task: Do more with less

Prior to Barack Obama’s historic election Tuesday to the office of President of the United States of America, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about how an Obama administration will take office in a time of scarcity.

“Raised in prosperity, favored by genetics, these young meritocrats will have to govern in a period when the demands on the nation’s wealth outstrip the supply.”

While this is fairly obvious, Brooks’s point was that Obama and his generation have never faced a situation like this in their lives, and have never prepared for it.

On a much, much smaller scale, that is also what Whistler’s next council will be dealing with. The demand for municipal services has grown steadily year after year, while municipal revenues have leveled off. We have built up expectations for these services (and for services the municipality doesn’t provide, including daycare) and will now have difficulty cutting them back — because these services tie in to our goal of being “the leading mountain resort community as we move toward sustainability.”

This matter has been generally recognized by the candidates for mayor and council, but we’ve heard precious few specific steps the candidates would take to address this. Some candidates don’t even appear to have looked at the municipal budget.

After two all candidates meetings and numerous media inquiries it appears everyone is in favour of fiscal responsibility and reigning in capital spending. But proposing to close the barn door now isn’t the solution to the municipality’s financial problems. Capital spending has already peaked. The current five year financial plan shows capital expenditures at $29 million this year, $10.5 million in 2009 and $5.4 million in 2010, before rising again in 2011 and 2012 but remaining below 2009 levels. These are still some big numbers, and no doubt there are projects that may be delayed or cut. But that will mean less road maintenance, aging computer systems and vehicles, and fewer trail improvements.

Lots of candidates are in favour of building more employee housing for seasonal workers. But they are also in favour of reigning in capital spending, and likely in favour of holding the line on the bed cap. And there has been no discussion of timelines for this seasonal housing, which is needed now rather than two years from now.

Capital spending is less of an issue than operational spending, which is forecast to increase, however moderately, each of the next four years. This is a problem because the revenue forecast for the next five years shows a $10 million shortfall. It’s going to cost $10 million more to run the municipality through 2012 than the municipality expects to collect in revenues.

And that was based on revenue projections before the bottom fell out of the world economy. That forecast anticipated relatively stable hotel tax revenue and commercial property tax revenue, both of which will decline if visitor numbers decline. And right now, visitor numbers this winter are expected to be off 12-15 per cent.

Missing from Saturday’s all candidates meeting, amid the questions about daycare and World Cups and universities, were questions about the issue that underlies all others: how is the municipality going to pay for these things? Would candidates raise property taxes, and if so, by how much? Would they seek additional sources of revenue? Where would they cut spending?

To be fair to the candidates, it’s difficult — and perhaps suicidal — to offer up specifics about tax increases and spending cuts in the limited time available at an all candidates meeting. This is where websites could be helpful. But again, most candidates’ websites are lean on details.

Candidates who did offer specifics Saturday included incumbent councillors Bob Lorriman, who proposed the municipality pursue a portion of the real estate transfer tax, and Eckhard Zeidler, who promised “consultation like never before” prior to determining what to cut and what to keep in the next budget.

Mayor Ken Melamed, while short on specifics, identified his three priorities for the next term: delivering on the opportunity of the Olympic Games, the budget and municipal finances, and community engagement. Those are fairly safe, perhaps obvious, priorities but the mayor has also demonstrated an understanding of the financial constraints the next council will be operating under.

Chris Quinlan has also demonstrated his abilities for council, serving on boards such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Whistler Health Care Foundation and the Phoenix project.

There is considerable consternation and frustration over many of the decisions made at municipal hall in the last three years. Some of that frustration is rightly aimed at the current council; some would be better directed at previous councils that put off decisions or made commitments that now have to be paid for.

The next council, like the Obama administration, is going to be asked to do more with less. Keep that in mind while voting Nov. 15.

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