Financial plan becomes policy at the hall 

Close council vote highlights concern over future budgets

The battle over the municipal budget is still raging at the council table, despite approval of the legislation several weeks ago.

The latest skirmish focused on the new Long-Term Financial Plan, developed by a handpicked nine-member volunteer board of experts. That plan was designed to be the "roadmap" by which to develop all future annual budgets at the hall.

One of the most startling things in the long-term plan was the forecasted $4.3 million funding gap at the municipality and the proposed way to deal with it: property tax increases totalling approximately 20 per cent over the next three years.

Not all councillors, however, were keen to see the long-term plan adopted as policy, as recommended by staff. The debate was yet another sign of just how difficult the budgeting process has been this past year, and how challenging it will be in the coming years.

"We need to keep all of our options open," said Councillor Eckhard Zeidler, in his opposition of making the plan policy.

To that point, Councillor Ted Milner requested that council simply receive the document rather than adopt it on "a hard and fast basis."

That's where Mayor Ken Melamed stepped in to defend the document as a policy.

"It's a policy," he said. "It's not a bylaw. There's nothing hard and fast about it.

"The document, as I see it, is really a guide."

Councillor Chris Quinlan sees the plan as a necessary guide, laying out the current financial hurdles, which are many and varied, and showing council where it has to go to provide the community with long-term financial stability, which he said does not exist now.

"We have to have a base to work from and this does a very good job of it," said Quinlan.

"It's very, very important that we take the opportunity to say 'this is where we start to build the future.'"

That was precisely the issue concerning Zeidler. By adopting the plan as policy, it becomes the document upon which decisions are based, even if council still has the final say.

"It becomes the new baseline," said Zeidler. "I don't want to work from this baseline."

Neither does Councillor Grant Lamont who said simply:

"There's a lot of different vegetables that go into my salad, and I just want to make sure we keep our options open."

The concerns from Lamont, Zeidler and Milner, though recognized by their council colleagues, were not enough to persuade them to refrain from making the plan policy.

It passed in a four to three vote.

The Long-Term Financial Plan lays out in no uncertain terms Whistler's financial challenges and the strategies the municipality should employ to meet those challenges.

It details, among many other things, the necessity of maintaining the so-called "Whistler experience" - that high-quality, unique experience that helps set Whistler apart from its competition.

Zeidler spoke at length of this "Whistler experience."

"There's no question that's got a cost attached to it," he said.

Though the plan calls for efficiencies and cost-effectiveness in the delivery of municipal services, it also states:

"RMOW will not, however, undermine its ability to provide the municipal investment required to support the Whistler Experience, or to support the community's priorities as set out in Whistler 2020 ."

The plan also couches future expectations for getting more financial tools (or new revenue sources) that could ease the burden on the taxpayers.

The RMOW will continue lobbying efforts through bodies like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Union of British Columbia Municipalities but the plan states: "If past experience is any guide, no one should expect success in this matter to come easily."

After the vote, Mayor Melamed asked the members of council to let him know if the policy was ever getting in their way of making any budgeting decisions.

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