With several big-ticket items in this year's proposed project budget — including $4 million for an artificial turf field, $6.8 million for the Gateway Loop Enhancement and $10 million for new vehicle purchases — there has been no shortage of online comments in recent weeks about the spending habits at municipal hall.
At the March 7 council meeting, in a discussion about the price tag attached to the artificial turf field, Councillor Sue Maxwell noted the municipality's general reserves are forecasted 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.
The discussion was continued by Whistlerite Patrick Smyth in two letters to council included in the April 11 council package, in which he expressed his opposition to the proposed 1.9-per-cent property-tax increase and what he calls unnecessary spending — "beautification projects" over things like childcare.
"It's just a total spend, spend, spend mentality when we have money, and I sit there and I look at the markets and I look at the housing market and it just scares me," Smyth said in a follow-up phone call.
In one of his letters, Smyth said he lived in the United States in the lead-up to the 2008 recession, and saw the effect that capital spending had on some municipalities.
"It was a disaster," he said.
"I'm not suggesting that Whistler is in any way as fiscally irresponsible as they were, but just because you have a surplus doesn't mean you have to spend it."
But concerns about spending at municipal hall are misplaced when put into context, said Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.
Contributions to reserves have been in the order of $12 million annually, and property tax increases over the last six years have been less than one per cent, she said in an April 10 phone call.
"If you look at the trend of property tax increases across the province we are lower than that trend, and we have been, for the last six years, at or below the overall rate of inflation, even though our costs are increasing," she said, noting that Vancouver is looking at a property tax increase of 3.9 per cent this year, while Squamish is looking at a tax increase of five per cent.
"We are in the process of retiring debt and we will be debt free in 10 years. Our annual servicing for debt is less than $3 million, so you know, it's kind of mind boggling that we have been (portrayed) — at least from some people on Facebook — as spending too much.
"It's a head scratcher."
Asked if she has any concern about the state of the reserves, or if there's a possibility that a future council might have to hike taxes to compensate, Wilhelm-Morden replied: "Absolutely not."
"We are budgeting according to our reserves policy. We've got in excess of $50 million dollars in the reserves. Many towns and cities in B.C. have zero dollars in their reserves and they fund all of their projects by borrowing. We don't follow that," she said.
"We fund our projects from savings, and, yes, it ebbs and flows, but we are prudent.
"We have, yes, an ambitious project budget this year, but we are very well placed to be pursuing that ambitious plan."
At the April 11 meeting, council gave first three readings to its 2017-2021 Five Year Financial Plan bylaw, based on a 1.9-per cent increase to property taxes and a one-per-cent increase to sewer parcel taxes.
After the readings, Wilhelm-Morden reiterated her earlier comments on the budget, after which each council member weighed in with some thoughts of their own.
"It makes me really, really proud when we go to conferences or meetings with other communities that just aren't where we are, and we are a very fortunate community to benefit from the policies that are in place around these reserves," said Coun. Jen Ford, adding that she supports the budget, but still has questions around the artificial turf field project.
Coun. John Grills noted the RMOW's "healthy reserves" made it possible to purchase the historic Parkhurst lands last month.
"Without those reserves that would have been impossible to do, and a huge opportunity would have been lost," he said.
Coun. Sue Maxwell said she's excited about budget items concerning FireSmart, housing, First Nations relations and more, but would like to see more updates on climate initiatives to help inform the budget process in future years.
"While our waste has increased about 22 per cent in our community, other places they've been able to reduce their residential waste by about 30 to 40 per cent, so I'd like to make sure we don't fall further behind other communities," Maxwell said.
"We should add some committees that address some of the indicators where we're failing, such as on affordability, climate and energy, water and solid waste, so that we can make sure that the same opportunities to add things to the budget that will address our indicators also are there."
Coun. Steve Anderson said that the budget is a compromise, and not everyone is going to get everything that they want.
"What I really appreciate about this five-year plan is I refer to it as kind of a living document. It's very nimble, we have the reserve capability to make moves like Parkhurst and still carry on in a fiscally responsible way, and I'm happy to support it," he said.
Coun. Jack Crompton noted that when he was first elected to council in 2011, there was a significant amount of talk about quarterly reporting, reserve policies and a finance and audit committee that met regularly.
"I am proud to have been a part of that finance and audit committee for five years and I think that the work that we did puts us in a very strong position as a community," Crompton said.
"I'm proud to serve this community and I support this budget."
Coun. Andrée Janyk was absent.
The full council meeting can be viewed at www.whistler.ca/municipal-gov/council/watch-council-meetings — some users have been experiencing technical difficulties lately. The RMOW is expecting a fix in the coming weeks.