Opinion » Editorial

Big spends on horizon

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It would be easy to feel overwhelmed right now as we are bombarded with information about spending in the municipal budget, as well as the endless announcements from the BC Liberals et al., as the provincial May election approaches.

But now is not the time to stop paying attention to either of these important events.

Election issues for the Sea to Sky would take up this whole space, so let's put that aside this week and take a look at three things that continue to dominate local concerns as the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) approaches budget D-Day — the proposed artificial-turf surface, the purchase of the Parkhurst lands and the Gateway Loop upgrade, already causing traffic woes as construction gets underway.

To refresh memories:

• The turf proposal has $160,000 budgeted for location studies this year (yes, $160,000 to look into where it should go) and another $3,993,000 for construction in 2018 — though construction costs could be closer to the $3-million range depending on the location chosen for the field.

• The purchase of the Parkhurst lands comes at a cost of $6,503,000 for the 81 hectares of waterfront green space on the north side of Green Lake.

• The Gateway Loop upgrade is budgeted for $6.8 million and will add eight bus bays, is expected to double Whistler's coach-service capacity, add a 526-square-metre canopy structure, a permanent wall and gate installed at the taxi loop, and improved pedestrian routes and lighting at the site.

Get your calculators out — that's a total of roughly $17.3 million for the build of the projects, most of which is coming out of reserves.

Of course, millions more are being spent from reserves and other municipal funds on essential services such as water and sewer, protection services, land use and planning, zoning and many others.

But it's hard not to take a deep breath and feel apprehensive with the revelation one after the other of these big-ticket items.

At a recent budget meeting, Councillor Sue Maxwell put into words the concerns many are voicing in the community.

She noted that the municipality's general reserves are forecast to fall from a high of about $80 million in 2015 to a low of $45 million in 2018 — "the lowest since 2009 when taxes had to be raised," she said.

Cast your minds back to that time — a time when council's decision to raise taxes, based on a solid economic report recommending action on reserves, ended up being an election issue.

That blue-ribbon panel suggested raising taxes 20 per cent to bridge a $5.7 million shortfall they calculated would develop between 2009 and 2012. In the end, taxes were raised 19 per cent over three years. At that time now-mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden questioned the enormous increase. "The tax increase is unwarranted," she told Pique.

Of course, today is not 2009. But it would be naïve to think that amidst our great success uncertainties don't exist. U.S. President Donald Trump is changing travel patterns and while some of that might benefit Canada, things are shifting globally — as a luxury purchase, we can't assume that travel might not be impacted.

So, is it wise to spend so much of our reserves right now?

The general consensus on social media about Parkhurst is that it is a good investment to protect our green spaces with some suggesting it be set up as a wilderness camping area. But if a developer, or a consortium of developers, walked away from the property, it's hard not to ask what the value of the land is to Whistler taxpayers. If the RMOW wasn't interested in the proposals put forward, are they now going to choose how they develop it themselves in the future?

The horse has left the barn on Gateway Loop, as we can all see from the extensive blue fencing surrounding the area, but again, it's hard not to consider that the reason the plan was left to linger for so long might have been because its value to the resort was far below other action items, like creating employee housing. This project had a budget of $3.8 million initially and it ballooned to the current budget of $6.8 million this year.

We do know that $650,000 of the money will come from RMI funds and maybe that is a wise spend. After all, who knows what the fate of the RMI will be after the provincial election on May 9. But do we honestly believe that creating more bus bays will get tourists out of their cars?

Council has authorized staff to prepare the 2017-2021 five-year financial plan bylaw based on a 1.9-per-cent increase to property value taxes and a one-per-cent increase to sewer parcel taxes. There is no proposed increase to water and solid-waste parcel taxes and fees.

The five-year financial plan bylaw will come before council on April 11, with adoption slated for April 25. Come out to the meeting and get informed.

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