The Whistler Chamber of Commerce is asking Whistler Council to reopen the budget process to allow for more public comment, and see if there are ways to address budget shortfalls other than with a six per cent property tax increase and additional fees.
In a letter to local newspapers last week, chamber chair Dave Davenport suggested that there is still time to create a budget where increases are tied to inflation.
Originally the municipal budget estimated that rising operating costs, coupled with a reduction in tax revenues from the condo/hotel reclassification, would result in a budget shortfall of more than 14 per cent. By freezing department budgets and reducing the contribution to capital reserves, the municipality was able to reduce that shortfall. They also changed the fee structure to help cover the costs of the new municipal composting facility and wastewater treatment plant.
According to the Resort Municipality of Whistler, the average resident could see their taxes increase anywhere from $235 to $430, depending on whether they live in a single family home or condo.
For commercial businesses, which are already taxed at a higher rate than residences, taxes are expected to increase $571 a year on average, to roughly $8,653.
According to Davenport, that increase will place additional hardships on local businesses.
“We’re already in a situation where a commercial space pays more than three times as much as a residential space,” he said. “Our expectation is that tax increases will usually be charged to inflation, which is around two per cent, so it’s a big shock for us to have to absorb three or four times that amount — particularly given that out of the last six years or so, only last year was really decent.”
Davenport believes there is still time to revisit the budget, and prepare an alternative budget that keeps the increase to within inflation — if for no other reason than to prepare for the future when municipal revenues will flatten.
“This is a pivotal time, and for a long time we’ve been contemplating what would happen when we’re no longer expanding the tax base with real estate development. Well, today is that day,” he said. “We have to learn to live with that. We’re not growing our base, or getting developments from developers, or fees from developers. We have to learn to pare down our expectations, or at least have that discussion.”
Davenport adds that most business owners are also homeowners, and will face higher tax bills at home as well as at work. He worries that the latest increase could be the breaking point for business owners already on the edge, who could end up paying more than $900 a year in additional taxes.
Chris Quinlan, owner and operator of Behind The Grind and Whistler Dog’s Paw, is concerned as a resident and a business owner.
In the past his strata unit was exempt from a recycling fee that will add $135 to his total tax bill this year.
“We already pay for that service through our strata fees, we pay for the collection and dumping and we’re not using the services at the waste transfer station,” he said. “That’s almost double taxation.
“It’s the same for businesses. I already pay a recycling fee as part of my rent for someone to come and collect our recycling, and now (the municipality) will be charging us for a service we’re not using.”
He will also have to pay an additional $170 fee for the water treatment plant upgrades and compost centre.
For Quinlan, the tax increase comes at a time when his other costs are soaring.
“The perception is that when the resort is doing well that businesses are making nothing but money, but the fact is that costs have gone up hugely,” he said. “Labour costs are up about 25 per cent, my food costs are up seven per cent. Every time I turn around someone is adding a fuel surcharge to another delivery.”
Quinlan would like to see the municipality prepare a second budget that is limited to inflation, which they can contrast to the current budget.
“Then we have two budgets to look at, and can see what we’re going to miss or if there are any opportunities to trim any fat,” he said.
Quinlan says the increase in costs could have been anticipated in the past and dealt with by a series of small increases instead of a large increase in 2008.
“We have to be realistic about what our costs are going to be,” he said. “We’re paying now for mistakes made over the last six years because we didn’t have a financial management system in place to budget properly or set money aside.
“I think most families would be okay with a $50 or $60 increase a year over the last six years or so, but when you try to raise that money all at once you’re going to make it hard for some people.”