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Budget 2014: challenges abound to hold the line on taxes

Open house planned to get community feedback


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For as many factors boosting Whistler's municipal budget in 2014, there appear to be just as many challenges.

That's what council and municipal staff are grappling with these coming weeks as they work to develop the 2014 budget and pass the bylaws by May.

After two years of holding the line on municipal taxes, it remains unclear what will happen in the third and final year of council's term.

"We're doing what we can to keep any tax increases to a very minimal level," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "If there will be a tax increase or not is still undecided. We want to hear what the public says."

She is referring to the open house on Tuesday Feb. 25 that will give the community a chance to provide input to the budgeting process.

"If people come to the open house next week and say they're dying for a tax increase, then we'll take that under advisement!" she joked.

In a presentation to council Tuesday, municipal CAO Mike Furey touched on the work at the council retreat on Feb. 13 and outlined some of the challenges affecting the 2014 budget, as well as some of the factors helping it.

On the one hand, municipal labour costs have gone up with the recent wage settlement — $1.5 million in staff wage increases to cover a four-year agreement with employees spanning 2012-2015. A similar deal was struck for the municipality's Canadian Union of Public Employees members.

There have also been additional operating costs with village maintenance related to increased visitation in the summer; last year was a record-breaking summer, due in part to the multi-million dollar festivals and events program spearheaded by the municipality.

There are increased costs affecting purchasing due to the change in the Canadian dollar and energy costs have gone up slightly too.

And yet, on the flip side, there are several factors pumping up the budget: a modest hotel tax increase in the range of one per cent, which translates to roughly $35,000, parking revenues are up, new development has added money, and last year was the last $150,000 tax exemption for Whistler Blackcomb's Peak 2 Peak Gondola — part of a five-year deal that gave exemptions to the $51 million project.

There are also plans in the works for what the mayor calls a "fairly aggressive" project list, clarifying that the projects are funded from reserves (or savings) and not from operating expenses.

Furey outlined some of those projects in his presentation:

• another big Festivals, Events, and Animation program

• the customer service strategy

• the wildfire protection program

• hosting the UBCM convention

• a service review of Whistler Fire and Rescue

• the Alta Lake sewer project

• trail work in Alpine and Emerald

• the municipal election in November

Furey said 2014 would be a year to work on many of the actions outlined in the planning documents that were completed in the last year.

"We're very much looking forward to the next year," added the mayor.

"The table has been set, so to speak, to move forward into action."

The budget open house will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday Feb. 25 at Millennium Place. It will kick off with presentations on the municipal budget and the 2013 corporate indicators, followed by a question and answer period.

The draft operating and project budgets will be presented to council on March 18.

Quarterly investment report doesn't deliver

The municipality's reserve accounts are lower than expected, with investment income down by roughly half of what was earned in the last few years.

Poor performance in the municipal investment portfolio means income dropped to a gain of $638,338.

Without the loss in the real return bond fund, that income would have been $1.25 million.

In an emailed response from the municipality to questions about the investment report, the communications department said the loss does impact the municipality.

"But most investment income is allocated to reserves, rather than funding operating costs. So the reserve balances are a little lower than planned as a result of less investment income. It does decrease the future purchasing power of the reserves, but inflation has been relatively low for the year just past."

Whistler's investment holdings had a market value of $85,508,315 as of Dec. 31, 2013.

In the past year the municipality has also invested in more funds.

"As dollars become available for investment we are trying to diversify into permissible investments that have a reasonable and more certain rate of return," explained the municipal communications department.

The investment report was part of Tuesday's council package.