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Municipal hall’s problems, in context



In the annals of Whistler’s history the 2002-05 administration at municipal hall will probably not be remembered for a raft of accomplishments. In fact, it often seemed like the council of the day spent a lot of time waiting for the provincial government to grant Whistler “financial tools”, approve Whistler’s boundary expansion or simply recognize that Whistler had special needs — that is, when the council members weren’t sniping about one another. And while there may not have been any outright statements that the province was to blame for Whistler’s stasis, the implication was there.

The present council, on the other hand, has made a concerted effort to work together during its first 10 months in office. And the relationship with the provincial government, thus far, seems to have improved.

But at Monday’s council meeting there were signs that a return to blaming the Liberals in Victoria for Whistler’s woes may be coming back in vogue.

When the issue of providing funding for the seasonal Whistler-Squamish bus service came up Mayor Ken Melamed didn’t mince his words. The Minister of Finance, the Treasury Board and the Minister of Transportation have frozen B.C. Transit’s budget for several years, which means the province isn’t putting up money for the bus service that many Squamish residents use to get to work in Whistler. The two municipalities are on their own when it comes to providing the $150,000 it takes to run the service each winter.

“Freezing transit funding is one of the worst betrayals of British Columbians,” a frustrated Melamed said, because — among other things — it reduces efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

He has a point. But the matter also has to be looked at in a larger context.

To start with, the provincial government is investing a lot in transportation systems around the province. There’s the Kicking Horse Pass upgrade, the Pacific Gateway strategy, expansion of the port at Prince Rupert, and of course the upgrade of the Sea to Sky Highway.

The Liberals are also investing in public transit, including a new billion-dollar rapid transit line in the most populous part of the province. And B.C. Transit is helping fund some new bus services in the Skeena area, in Smithers and in the Thompson-Cariboo-Shuswap region.

The provincial government also has budget concerns for the whole province, including a health care system that is gobbling up an ever-larger percentage of the total provincial budget.

And it’s not as though the province hasn’t given up some revenue to Whistler, as it finally did earlier this spring when it granted Whistler its long-awaited financial tools.

This is not to say that the Liberals don’t have a lot to answer for. Looking at just a few issues in our region:

• the Callaghan valley is a mess of overlapping, often conflicting commercial, environmental and First Nations interests. Despite years of work on a land management plan the situation is as confusing as ever and is begging for some leadership and direction from Victoria;

• the Legacies Society that will be responsible for the Whistler Nordic Centre and Whistler Sliding Centre after the 2010 Olympics needs to be struck soon, so that the people who will be running the facilities are involved in decisions being made now and can start planning for post-2010;

• some sort of overall plan is needed for independent power projects, so we get away from the gold rush mentality that sees companies staking claims on creeks and rivers and local communities, concerned about their environment, confronting projects one by one.

But while most of us like to blame senior governments in far off cities for not listening to our concerns, the mayor should keep in mind that not everyone is happy with local governments, either. In fact, there’s a feeling among a growing segment of the population that municipal taxation and spending should be scrutinized more closely.

Which leads into council’s decision Monday to reject — by a 4-3 margin — plans for an $8.75 million renovation and expansion of municipal hall.

The 33-year-old building, which started its life as a restaurant, certainly needs upgrading. There are municipal staff members without proper workspace. And an emergency command centre is a good idea. All of these issues were addressed in the proposed renovation and expansion, which we were told met the Whistler 2020 goals and objectives.

But the proposal was rightly sent back to the drawing board because, as some councillors argued, it didn’t meet the Whistler 2020 goals and objectives. An analysis of municipal staffing requirements beyond 2010 has not been done. Alternative space for staff in other buildings doesn’t seem to have been explored. And, critically, the $8.75 million proposal comes just five months after council budgeted $5.7 million for the project.

In short, the proposed municipal hall renovation and expansion was a solution to a problem removed from the larger context of Whistler’s overall needs and abilities. And governments, at all levels, can’t afford to look at things that way.