The Resort Municipality of Whistler’s cry for more money is a familiar refrain. For several years municipal officials have been making the point that a resort municipality must provide a greater level of services than a non-resort community and Whistler needs to find new ways to fund these services. As we have approached buildout, and development cost charges have declined, the warnings have become more frequent. This year’s municipal budget makes the situation quite clear:
“With current building levels it will be difficult to cover the upcoming costs of maintaining a world class resort, while providing for product and service enhancement.
“Property taxes cannot fund these costs alone. Tough choices will need to be made between new facilities and services and the appropriate maintenance of what we have.”
The need for more funding was driven home again last week, with Mayor Hugh O’Reilly and Councillor Caroline Lamont both saying it was a common theme among local governments at the recent Union of B.C. Municipalities conference.
“It’s great that we’ve got all kinds of big plans for resort development and economic development (in B.C.), but we’re the ones who are really impacted the most on the front lines… and there’s no funding for us even to hire a consultant or staffing to deal with this growth,” Lamont said.
Giving local governments — particularly large cities — more money has become a popular cause in recent years. Prime Minister Paul Martin, who as finance minister through most of the 1990s cut transfer payments to the provinces, which in turn downloaded new costs on to municipalities, has talked about giving back funds to local governments. And with a projected surplus of $8 billion-$9 billion announced this week, he may finally be prepared to take some action.
The B.C. government is projecting a more modest budget surplus this year but it too has also long promised to give local governments more authority to raise funds. That authority was expected to come through the Community Charter, but several industries — including the ski industry — feared a patchwork of taxes would be imposed by local governments across the province, driving away business and creating an uneven playing field for industry. The province watered down the Community Charter and announced Bill 75, which gives it the authority to override local government decisions when it is determined to be in British Columbia’s best interest.
So despite all the rhetoric at the provincial and federal levels, the only source of new revenue on the horizon for local governments is a share of the fines collected on speeding tickets.
One simple way the province could provide some municipalities with a new financial tool is to deal with the Class 1/6 tax classification problem on strata-titled hotels. Currently, a building that to most people looks and functions like a hotel may be taxed at a commercial rate one year and at a lower residential rate another year. If, as Whistler is suggesting, a new and permanent tax classification for this type of real estate is developed it would provide certainty for both property owners and local governments.
Meanwhile, the Resort Municipality of Whistler has quietly and incrementally set out to find new sources of revenue by being more entrepreneurial. The RMOW announced its intentions several years ago when the Vision 2002 document was drafted. But it is only in the last year or two that “entrepreneurial government” has begun to be defined. The municipality’s purchase of half of whistler.com was announced this year; a partnership with Yodel was announced last year; the Whistler Events Bureau is taking on more projects; the practice of renting parks and the recreation centre to private groups has been going on for several years; and partnerships with commercial operators to provide services at municipal parks have been formed.
Each of these steps, by itself, seems to have been accepted by the public. But the municipality has recognized a need for better parameters to guide it in public/private partnerships. Last week council adopted a policy that will attempt to do that. An annual statement of revenue and expenses from public/private partnerships would further assure the public this is the direction Whistler should be going.
But the municipality’s consistent need for more revenue — and the public’s demand for more services — should be monitored as well.