Sometime in the next three weeks, prior to their April 5 meeting, Whistler council will hold an open house to gather public feedback on the first draft of this year’s municipal budget. The budget has to be adopted before the end of May .
In a year when property assessments have increased again and business is generally down, it would be worth taxpayers’ time – and that includes renters, who indirectly pay their landlords’ property taxes – to see where municipal money is being spent this year.
Councils have, in recent years, been sensitive to the fact that property values keep increasing and so have adjusted the mill rate to try and limit the burden on homeowners. But assessed values keep climbing. This year commercial property values have increased far more than residential property values – 20 to 30 per cent, in some cases – so business owners may be hit hard by taxes or lease rates in a year when many businesses are already having a tough time.
This is why it behoves residents to look at the budget and planned spending, such as the $7.5 million recently approved for a library. This is not to say that spending that money on a library is wrong. Certainly the people of Whistler need something better than the portable trailers that have "temporarily" served as the library’s home for far too many years. But spending needs to be looked at in context. Part of the context is that previously the municipality had budgeted a little more than $5 million for a $10 million joint library/museum facility. The second $5 million was to have been raised by the library and museum. Fundraising in the post-9/11 economy was thoroughly unsuccessful so last year the project was scrapped.
So if the municipality has now budgeted $7.5 million for a library when previously it could only afford $5 million for a library/museum facility, presumably something else (in addition to the museum) has dropped down the list of priorities in the five-year capital plan.
It is a matter of funding priorities, and the budget is a reflection of council’s priorities. The open house on the budget is the public’s first opportunity to see and discuss those priorities since the 2010 Winter Olympics became a reality last July.
The last time the current council outlined its priorities was during a retreat in February of 2003, just after the last municipal election had been concluded. The five top priorities identified then were:
1. Whistler. It’s Our Future CSP
2. Transition Strategy (until the CSP is adopted)
3. Affordability and Affordable Housing
4. Financial Sustainability
5. Provincial Relations
We’ll withhold comment on the CSP until it is completed.
Much of priority number 3 should be addressed through the land bank that came with the Olympics, wherever that land may be. On the affordability front, the municipality, working with private citizens, has done some good work to increase the number of full-time residents who qualify for the provincial homeowners grant.
Financial Sustainability is closely linked, in the February 2003 priorities, with "financial tools", a concept that was introduced in January 2002 as part of the lasting legacies Whistler would receive from the provincial government for co-hosting the Olympics. Priority number 5, improving provincial relations, was seen as part of the process of acquiring additional financial tools, which would produce additional revenue and lead to long-term financial sustainability.
But there has been little indication from Victoria that new financial tools are coming to Whistler, or any other municipality, any time soon. In fact, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce and some tourism organizations have spoken out against giving municipalities the authority to create new taxes or revenue sources.
So where does that leave Whistler? In the long term, some sort of new funding model for B.C.’s emerging resort communities – which must provide infrastructure for two or three times their resident populations while trying to stay affordable enough that residents remain – will have to be found. Perhaps a co-ordinated appeal to Victoria, with Fernie, Rossland and similar resort towns, is the answer.
Meanwhile, council members are dealing with "…aging infrastructure, dwindling development cost charges, changing market conditions and the increased cost of ‘staying on top’."
Which is why this year’s budget and five-year financial plan is so important.