Tax measures hit condo owners hardest 

New recycling fee means some tax bills could be 22 per cent higher than last year

click to enlarge NEW FEES Councillor Gord McKeever and other condo owners will now be charged a $170 recycling fee. Previously condos were exempt from the fee.
  • NEW FEES Councillor Gord McKeever and other condo owners will now be charged a $170 recycling fee. Previously condos were exempt from the fee.

Council has approved a preliminary 6 per cent increase in property taxes but some homeowners, like Councillor Gord McKeever, could see their tax bill jump more than 20 per cent.

That’s because McKeever lives in a multi-family complex and the new budget guidelines for 2008 will see all townhouse/condo owners billed an additional $170 recycling fee, new this year. Last year only single-family homeowners and commercial owners paid the fee, set at $210. That will now drop to the blanket fee of $170 for every property owner.

In addition, the sewer parcel tax is increasing $135 for every property owner.

Right off the bat that’s a $305 jump in fees for McKeever, and all other condo owners, in addition to a six per cent hike in property taxes.

“My taxes are going to go up about 22 per cent this year,” said McKeever, who, despite the personal hit, voted for the tax increase.

The proposal, however, was met with some reluctance on the part of three members of council — Ralph Forsyth, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden and Eckhard Zeidler — and it just barely passed in a 4 to 3 vote, much to the obvious disappointment of Mayor Ken Melamed.

Like McKeever, who said his taxes have dipped about five per cent in previous years, the mayor said his personal property taxes have decreased roughly $500 since 2003.

“I know our family can afford this,” he said, while recognizing that it’s not that way across the board.

“It is not going to be a long-term increase.”

When asked the following day whether it was fair that people living in the least expensive homes, including the vast majority of the employee housing market, would see the highest increases to their tax bills, the mayor highlighted that condo owners have not been paying for the recycling service and the new fee is a correction of that inequality. In addition, the sewer tax is being applied across the board to pay for upgrades to the $51 million sewage plant.

“This is more equitable and I don’t think it’s accurate to say that simply because somebody owns a condominium that is worth less than a house doesn’t necessarily have less money,” said Melamed. “I don’t think that’s a conclusion that we can derive.”

He also alluded to another measure staff is working on that could provide further tax relief to resident homeowners. That proposal could be public in a month.

Since the issue of tax increases came up staff has been working on mitigating the $3.8 million budget shortfall.

A six per cent increase in property taxes will reduce the impact by $1.5 million, leaving a budget shortfall of $2.3 million.

To meet that shortfall the municipality will have to significantly lower its contribution to capital reserves, which in turn means less capital spending. The goal of a 20 per cent contribution to reserves will drop to a 13 per cent contribution in 2008.

In addition, municipal department budgets will not increase with inflation but remain at 2007 levels. In other words, staff will have to do more with less.

There will be no supplemental new service items in the upcoming budget and community grants will be significantly scaled back.

The proposal is a significant departure from the norm in Whistler, which generally sees property taxes rise with inflation.

Inflationary increases can work for the status quo, said Councillor Bob Lorriman.

“It’s not business as usual for Whistler,” he said, alluding to the opportunities that are coming down the pipeline associated with the 2010 Olympic Games.

And in response to calls from other councillors for more spending cuts, Lorriman said: “There have already been significant cuts to get where we are today. I am very, very concerned about increasing the level of cuts above and beyond what staff is recommending.”

But the three naysayers on council encouraged staff to revisit the budget and find ways to increase taxation at the rate of inflation, roughly 2.1 per cent.

Forsyth said he could rationalize the increase in the solid waste fee to pay for the sewage plant upgrades as well as the recycling fee.

“We all use that,” he said. “We all need that.”

But he could not support the six per cent increase to taxes and urged staff to go back to the drawing board.

“I would ask kindly to please, let’s go back… and see if we can whittle that down still.”

The call was echoed by Wilhelm-Morden who urged staff to review spending.

“We need to look at the spending side, as opposed to the revenue side,” she said.

She also pointed to the increase in municipal revenues this year through the 4 per cent hotel tax, an estimated $6 million annually. Though the province is very prescriptive on how that money can be used — for the long term success of the resort — Wilhelm-Morden said some of the money pays for operating the resort, such as village landscaping, the free village shuttle, and RCMP costs.

“The decrease in spending shouldn’t have real noticeable impacts on the resort business,” she maintained.

Councillor Tim Wake, however, cautioned that the money from hotel tax and general revenue flows into different pots and can only be used for certain things.

Wilhelm-Morden also raised the issue of 2010 spending.

“We need to keep in mind it’s four weeks,” she said.

“Perhaps at the end of the day we shouldn’t be so ambitious as our capital program suggests.”

But the mayor took issue with that; several factors are affecting the 2008 budget, not the least of which is the $2 million hit from the condo/hotel reclassification, the $1 million increase in labour costs and the increase to operating costs due to new facilities such as the transfer station and the composting facility.

Melamed said: “I want to suggest this is not a tax increase to pay for the Games.”

Council approved guidelines for the 2008 budget Monday. The actual budget will come forward for public comment and approval in the weeks ahead.

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