Even with the prospect of a property tax increase on the horizon, few community members came to the municipality's budget open house last Wednesday evening.
During the three-hour open house, approximately 14 people filtered into the Telus Conference Centre, where the municipality's projects budget was displayed and an army of staff and councillors stood on hand to field questions.
"The budget open houses, to my knowledge, have never been very well attended," commented Councillor Ralph Forsyth the following week.
"I was not surprised by the turnout. I think the subsequent public consultation we do will probably be better attended."
Municipal staff and councillors are still reviewing the 2009 and 2010 budgets, but a tax increase is likely.
The latest calculations show property owners in Whistler will probably pay $20 extra this year for every $100,000 of assessed value, with another $10 increase expected for 2010.
In other words, between 2008 and 2010, property owners could see a tax increase of $41 per $100,000 of assessed value.
Water utility rates are also expected to climb $75 this year, on top of the $91 utility increase Whistler residents saw last year.
Low turnout aside, the portion of the budget showcased on Feb. 18 looked fairly lean.
Almost all of the big capital items have been on the municipality's books for years, including the wastewater Treatment Plant, Celebration Plaza, the athletes' village, the day parking lot upgrades and the Fitzsimmons Creek debris barrier.
Most of the other expensive items involved maintaining municipal infrastructure, like repairing roads or replacing aging vehicles.
A frank Mayor Ken Melamed said it is going to be difficult to cut spending.
"A lot of these numbers are not optional," said Melamed. "There is not a lot of fluff in the budget. It is mainly the nuts and bolts of what we have to do."
He said one area councillors will scrutinize is the Fee For Service Agreements, which help Millennium Place, the Whistler Arts Council, the Whistler Museum, and Whistler Animals Galore. Last year, the municipality decreased their contribution to these organizations from $680,000 to $530,000.
"We challenged them all last year to deliver their services with a 30 per cent decrease," said Melamed.
"They accommodated that, but they would like to get back to the previous amount. We know they all had major challenges rearranging their business plans."
Mayor and council will meet with municipal staff next Monday, March 2nd, to review spending and set the 2009 and 2010 operational budgets.
"That is where we are going to roll up our sleeves and cut where things need to be cut, and save things, and have the fullness of debate," said Forsyth.
Whistler residents can stay informed on the budget by attending another open house, scheduled for Wednesday, March 11. Also, an update will likely come before council during their public meeting on Tuesday, March 17, starting at 5:30 p.m.
A copy of the proposed budget is available on the municipality's website, www.whistler.ca, under Municipal Hall, Financials, Budget Planning Process.
Spending worth noting
This year, the municipality will pay the last $9 million for the $51.65 million wastewater Treatment Plant upgrade.
Also, the municipality will spend $3.8 million for the day parking lot upgrades and $4.23 million for the Fitzsimmons Creek debris barrier.
The RMOW will spend $7.2 million upgrading Whistler's water system, as part of a $12 million project the municipality began last fall.
Another big item on the books this year is the last $12.6 million for the $13.6 million Celebration Plaza, currently being built for the 2010 Games. Whistler's portion of the $12.6 million is $4.2 million, with the remaining funding coming from senior levels of government and VANOC.
In 2010, the municipality plans to pay the Whistler Development Corporation (WDC) the promised $8.3 million for employee housing at the new athletes' village.
In 2011 a $3 million park will be built in Cheakamus Crossing.
Over the next six years, the municipality will spent at least $10.3 million replacing old vehicles, computer systems and Meadow Park sports equipment
Arts a low priority
Results from a recent survey shed light on the way the community wants their tax dollars spent: namely, spending on arts is not a priority.
Whistler permanent residents, second-homeowners and seasonal residents all ranked art programming and facilities as their last priority for spending in 2009. Arts were on a survey list with 12 other categories, like snow clearing, village maintenance and recreational programs.
Library and building services also ranked low.
Top priorities for the three groups, on the other hand, included snow clearing, fire services and transit.
The Mustel Group interviewed 706 people between Jan. 28 and Feb. 5 this year to compile these results.
Evi Mustel from the research group said it is important to keep in mind that the responses are affected by the way the questions are asked.
For example, she said, residents may rate arts low on their priority list compared to policing services, but that does not mean they do not want money spent on arts.
The results troubled many of the councillors when they were presented last week, since the municipality has identified arts a way to strengthen Whistler's tourism economy.