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Council approves 19 per cent tax increase over three years

Despite controversy, mayor calls the budget process ‘the best I have ever seen’

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Four former Whistler councillors were among the community members who watched council approve this year's controversial municipal budget on Tuesday night.

And at least one of those former councillors is unhappy with the 19 per cent property tax increase over the next three years.

"The tax increase is unwarranted," stated Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who sat on council last term.

"I think there were ways council could have given direction to staff to sharpen their pencils, but there were no spending cuts. The mayor was asked to name one budget cut they made in 2009, and he couldn't."

Wilhelm-Morden pointed to the Olympics as one area municipal hall is spending an "enormous amount" on.

Instead of reducing that budget, council has now increased it, she said.

But Nick Davies, who last sat on council in 2005, said this year's budget was probably the best council could do under the circumstances.

"I am sure everybody has views on programs they think are unnecessary that should be cut, or that maybe there are too many staff. But even if we attack those issues, that would not make a substantial difference to the budget," said Davies.

"The budget increase is driven largely by expenses that are out of our control, like the shortfall in the hotel tax and the increase in the transit budget."

Davies added, though, that he was "extremely disappointed" by the level of debate around the council table on Tuesday night.

"This council needs to learn this is not a high school debating club," said Davies.

"We are in the run up to the Olympic Games, and they need to start bringing their discussions to a higher level."

He added that it was obvious the council members argued over the numbers behind closed doors - even though they are not entitled to do so.

The financial plan - which received third reading Tuesday - calls for an 8 per cent property tax increase this year, a seven per cent increase next year, and a four per cent increase in 2011.

In other words, a person with a home assessed at $100,000 will pay $16 more this year, $14 more next year, and $8 more the year after - a total of $38 per $100,000 of assessed value over three years.

When council began the 2009 and 2010 budget process this January, Mayor Ken Melamed acknowledged it would be a challenge. This week, though, Melamed called it the "best process that I have ever seen."

"What I have seen in developing this budget is that council and the community need to react to financial stresses that have been largely out of our control," said the mayor.

"Although it would have been wonderful to accommodate that without a tax increase, we have not been able to do that."

He added that Whistler's situation is similar to other local governments in B.C. as a result of continued downloading from senior levels of government.

The three years of tax increases are necessary to bridge a $5.7 million shortfall expected to accumulate between now and 2012, according to Lisa Landry, general manager of economic development for the municipality.

She added the 19 per cent tax increase will satisfy the 20 per cent tax increase laid out in the recently prepared Long Term Financial Plan.

Some of the factors that have created this gap are revenue lost from a change in the hotel tax and declining hotel revenues, Whistler reaching build out, and the economy. Costs have also gone up.

Ralph Forsyth, who was the only councillor to vote against the financial plan, said council needs to have a more thorough discussion on ways to increase revenue or cut spending.

"We can't keep inserting things into the capital budget and line items," said the second term councillor.

But before giving their thumbs up to the financial plan, several other councillors questioned specific areas of spending.

Councillor Ted Milner, in particular, was concerned that a similar amount of money has been budgeted for the Games office in 2009 and 2010, even though the Olympics will wrap up three months into 2010.

To this Jim Godfrey, executive director for the 2010 Games, replied: "The Games office will start to shut down in June... but we are hoping we won't have to spend the amount of money that is budgeted at this point."

During the meeting, Landry also spoke about recent budget cuts at Vail and Aspen. She said as a result of record-breaking sales tax revenue, both communities had increased staff in recent years. But this year, as the economy plummeted, Aspen and Vail eliminated or froze several employment positions.

Landry had benchmarked Whistler against Vail and Aspen earlier this year to show the tax increase was not unjust.

Last year's 5.5 per cent tax increase was the first time in more than 20 years that the municipality raised taxes above the rate of inflation.

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