Opinion » Editorial


Budgeting for our times




Whistler homeowners have seen their property taxes increase about 20 per cent over the last three years, and registered few complaints along the way. But the additional four per cent increase this year seems to have crossed a line.

There has been a lot of focus on wage increases for municipal staff, and rightly so. Wages and benefits are the bulk of any operating budget and need to be examined carefully.

The $800,000 increase in wages seems to be particularly antagonizing to people who have been through two years when many haven't seen wage hikes and some have seen their pay reduced.

We are told that 2011 is the final year of a four-year labour agreement that saw annual wage increases. The agreement was negotiated three years ago, prior to the start of the recession, in order to ensure continuity among staff through the Olympics.

But for many taxpayers the issue is less about what individuals at municipal hall are making - there are many very good people who earn every penny they make. It's more about how many people there are at municipal hall in this post-Olympic period. In particular senior staff - people making the highest wages - whose incomes are increasing. A four per cent increase on a $120,000 salary is a bigger hit than four per cent increase on $40,000.

The legal conundrum about the "contract" the RMOW has with most municipal staff is also frustrating some people. Is it a legal contract or is it a gentlemen's agreement incorporated in a handbook? The municipality says it is a legal agreement and cancelling the contract would set off a series of issues, presumably larger than the proposed four per cent tax increase.

But as we saw with the asphalt plant, legal opinions can differ and there are some who believe the handbook is not a contract.

The response from municipal hall to concerns about another tax increase - what services would you cut in order to avoid a tax increase? - only serves to raise people's blood pressure. There are other aspects of the budget that need examining.

We have been told that pay parking revenue is less than expected and transit costs are significantly higher than expected. Pay parking has been bungled, a few times, as has been discussed previously in this space.

Transit costs have gone up significantly over the last few years, while anecdotal evidence suggests satisfaction levels with the service have declined. Some of this is due to the partnership structure that the municipality has with BC Transit. The Crown corporation calls the shots - as it did with the Garage-mahal transit facility - and the RMOW has to follow their lead.

But Whistler's transit system has always claimed to have one of the highest riderships in the province. Now we understand it also has one of the lowest cost recovery rates. The "free" bus service between the village and the Benchlands, funded by hotel tax, would seem to be a factor in both these equations.

BC Transit is currently studying bus routes and ridership in Whistler. An overall review of the system, including who uses transit and who would use it if was more timely and efficient - particularly if pay parking is reorganized and implemented throughout the village - is overdue. It might even save the municipality some money, next year.

Municipal wages are also likely to be frozen, next year.

The benefits of both these measures, and others, taken by the current council will likely be reaped by the next council. Ironically, it is the current council that, in some people's minds, basked in the "glory" of the Olympics.


A change at Pique

A new year is time for new directions.

After 16 years as editor of Pique Newsmagazine, and nearly 21 years editing newspapers in Whistler, I am stepping back from that role to focus more on the business and strategic side of Pique Publishing.

Clare Ogilvie is the new editor of Pique Newsmagazine, the second in the paper's history.

An award-winning journalist and 15-year resident of Whistler, Clare brings new energy and ideas to the editorial side of Pique, including its online publications. We are fortunate to have her join us again.

My role will include working on some new Pique projects and ensuring the company is well positioned as a strong, independent, locally owned newspaper in this post-Olympic period.