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Feature - Balancing the ledger

Council accomplishments and… works in progress

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Three years is a long time in Whistler.

Whistler years are not quite the same as dog years, but sometimes it seems like we cram seven times more stuff into 12 months than does the rest of the world.

Three years ago the asking price on a studio unit in the village was $150,000. A month ago the listed price on a similar unit was $320,000.

In the fall of 1999 a house sold for a Whistler record $3.48 million. Earlier this year Whistler had its first $1 million tear-down, in Whistler Cay Heights.

In the last three years we’ve come to have some understanding of what a successful Olympic bid will mean to Whistler. We’ve also been through a passionate debate on hosting the World Economic Forum. Large so-called trophy homes have become the thing to build. The supply of resident-restricted housing has increased, but housing is still a problem for employees and employers. The Millennium Place community facility was built and the arts council’s role expanded, all in the past 36 months.

On Nov. 16 voters will be asked to look at the ledger of accomplishments and works in progress, consider how it balances, and then choose the people who will make decisions on Whistler’s behalf over the next three years from among 18 candidates for council and two candidates for mayor.

To help with the accounting, what follows is a review of some of the major issues and decisions that got us to where we are today.

Actually, a recap of the accomplishments of the current municipal council should go back to nearly ancient Whistler history, six years ago (42-dog years) when the present council – with the exception of Councillor Nick Davies – was first constituted.

In 1996, after eight years as a councillor, Hugh O’Reilly was elected mayor and Councillors Ted Milner, Ken Melamed and Stephanie Sloan were elected for the first time. Kristi Wells and Dave Kirk were re-elected in 1996.

But perhaps just as significant as the elected council was the appointment in the fall of 1996 of administrator Jim Godfrey. Godfrey was instrumental in developing the Whistler 2002 vision document, which itself was a product of the 1996 review of Whistler’s municipal procedures, done by independent consultants Urban Systems. That review found that Whistler’s 1994 Comprehensive Development Plan and annual town hall meetings established a clear set of goals or "mini vision" statements, but no clear, single vision or mission statement to guide the local government.

The Whistler 2002 document, which was developed between 1996 and 1999, provided that vision. At the time of the last municipal election Whistler 2002 was a working document. Since then the long-term financial plan and the business plan, which accompany the Whistler 2002 document, have taken shape. Today the Whistler 2002 document and its guiding principles are referenced virtually every time an issue comes to council.

The priorities set out in Whistler 2002 are:

• Building a stronger resort community;

• Enhancing the Whistler experience;

• Working towards environmental sustainability;

• Achieving financial sustainability;

• Contributing to the success of the region.

Another significant step taken by council shortly after their 1996 election was the establishment of the Whistler Housing Authority. One of the big issues in the ’96 election was the housing fund, which then sat at about $6 million, based on surcharges collected from commercial developments.

When the housing authority was established its primary goal was to use the housing fund to build resident-restricted housing. Today the Whistler Housing Authority owns and manages five housing projects, with 165 rental units. With the housing fund virtually exhausted, the WHA’s focus has shifted, from development to administration and planning.

In the 1999 election the entire council was returned, with one exception: Nancy Wilhelm-Morden decided not to seek a second consecutive term and Nick Davies was elected.

Hugh O’Reilly said of the 1999 election results and the previous three years: "We’ve annoyed some people… but we’ve learned some lessons. It’s a vote of confidence, we’re on the right track. We can start to implement some of the building blocks we’ve been working on."

The 1999 election marked the first time there had been any sort of significant split between part-time and full-time Whistler residents. The divisive issue was nightly rental of properties that aren’t zoned for tourist accommodation. While there no longer appears to be a split between full-time and part-time residents on nightly rentals, the meeting at Myrtle Philip school two weeks ago showed that regulating tourist accommodation is an issue that still hasn’t been resolved.

When the last council was sworn in O’Reilly said the issues that stood out in the campaign were: communication, community involvement, the Olympic bid, nightly rentals, the Emerald sewer, the cap on development and its future, partners in the community, affordability, and transportation.

"I believe many of these issues can and will be addressed in the framework of the vision, the long-term financial plan and the business plan," the mayor said. "I know the significance and impact of these long-range plans are still emerging, but I believe they are powerful tools that will enable us to find solutions to issues and meet our community goals."

Indeed planning has been emphasized at municipal hall in recent years. This has led to the development of a transportation plan, a village enhancement plan, a cultural plan and an environmental strategy, all of which are based on principles identified in the Whistler 2002 document.

While the reports and strategies have been piling up, council has also made some important policy decisions in the last three years that will shape Whistler’s future. Among these are adoption of The Natural Step principles and efforts to control development on large tracts of land.

Council also established guiding principles for Whistler’s participation in the Olympic bid. The Oct. 21 council meeting will be entirely devoted to discussion of the Olympic bid, which is expected to finally be endorsed by a majority of council. The timing is ironic.

Six years ago Stewart Glen, noted local thespian and hockey goaltender, was a candidate for mayor. Much of Glen’s platform was built on the then-wacky notion that Whistler should bid to host the Olympics in order to get the affordable housing, cultural facilities and other legacies the town needed. Glen finished sixth among the six mayoralty candidates that year, garnering a total of 28 votes.

Today the Olympic bid and the legacies expected from the province, regardless of whether the bid is successful or not, are a big part of Whistler’s future. The athletes village and land bank in the Callaghan Valley are expected to be part of the long-term solution to affordable housing. New "financial tools" – the authority for the municipality to impose a new tax – have also been discussed with the province, but Victoria has yet to make a commitment.

New financial tools are something the municipality has been counting on for some time. One of the first things the new council did after the 1996 election was tour American resorts and study the revenue streams available to those towns. What they found was that American resorts are less dependent on property taxes and that a substantial portion of their revenue comes from a resort tax on goods and services.

Whistler council and municipal staff returned from that tour with the intention of putting together a case to take to Victoria that would show how Whistler needs a similar revenue stream, one that is tied to the success of the resort. That need would appear to have grown over the last six years as development has slowed and municipal revenue from development cost charges has dwindled. This, of course, is a consequence of Whistler’s self-imposed cap on development.

Another consequence of that cap is that property values continue to climb. This is good for the municipality, in that 67 per cent of its revenue comes from property taxes, but increasing property values also make it more costly to live and play here.

It’s also argued that property owners are footing the bill for municipal infrastructure and services used by vacationing tourists. The idea behind a resort tax is that it would mean tourists contribute directly to municipal revenues, sharing some of the burden with property owners. But, the province has yet to see things Whistler’s way.

Still, municipal finances have gone through a number of changes in the last three years. The municipality now has an investment planner who oversees short and longer term investments to ensure greater returns. Municipal budgeting procedures have been revamped to reflect a more business-like approach. And five-year financial plans are now produced on an annual basis.

The four key strategic priorities identified in the five-year plan for 2002 were: preparation for the 2010 Olympic bid, introduction of The Natural Step through the Whistler. It’s Our Nature program, development of the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan through the Whistler. It’s Our Future process, and alternative organizational strategies for the effective delivery of municipal services.

Most of the changes to municipal finances in recent years reflect priorities outlined in the Whistler 2002 document. In 1999 the Whistler Public Library became a municipal public library, and the municipality now provides 73 per cent of the library’s operating budget. This year the Whistler Community Arts Council’s budget was tripled, with the municipality now contributing $90,000 to the council.

Taxes increased each year from 1998 to 2001, while property values also climbed. But the provincial government cut funding and transfers to municipalities during this period as well.

The five year financial plan for 2001 showed contributions to capital reserves for the sewer fund and general fund were not meeting targets.

Among other financial commitments made in recent years, the municipality has had to guarantee the mortgage on the $2 million outstanding on Millennium Place, has authorized $1.5 million for a fire hall at Spring Creek and committed $5 million toward the future library/museum building.

With additional financial tools not yet in place, budgeting for a sustainable community with a limit on physical growth is becoming more difficult. One of the trends that has emerged in recent years is developers offering cash for municipal projects or amenities as part of their rezoning applications. The trend began in December of 2000 when the Houghton brothers proposed a cash amenity for the Spring Creek day care facility, in return for rezoning their lots at Taluswood to allow larger homes.

Since then, with Millennium Place still short of money, the housing authority’s fund exhausted and the library/museum capital campaign looking for donations, developers have stepped forward with proposals that include cash donations to each of these community needs.

So in late 2002, with the development cap still in place and a number of community needs yet to be fulfilled, Whistler is grappling with where it wants to go and how it wants to get there. The Olympic bid presents a number of opportunities, regardless of whether it is successful or not.

The Whistler. It’s Our Future process is a real opportunity for people to have their say on the issue, yet its success to date, to be charitable, could be described as mixed.

On the weekend of Sept. 21-22, Whistlerites were invited to the Westin Resort and Spa to discuss the future of their town. Slightly more than 100 people took time out to participate in the four Whistler. It’s Our Future workshops held over two days.

That only about one per cent of the approximately 10,000 people who reside year round in Whistler responded to the invitation could be interpreted many ways. People may be satisfied with the way Whistler is now and the direction it’s heading; they may have been too busy to participate (there were a number of other events that weekend); or the prospect of sitting in a room on a glorious late summer weekend to discuss concepts like affordability and sustainability just may not have seemed appealing.

Some people have made light of the fact that an Ouija board game was one of the draw prizes given away at the workshop, but the process is continuing with Phase II next month and the final verdict can still be determined through participation.

Meanwhile, affordability and sustainability have become the buzz words leading up to the Nov. 16 election. You won’t find a candidate against either, but ask the 20 candidates on the ballot for definitions and you’ll likely receive 20 different answers.

An affordability strategy was to have been completed by the present council by the second quarter of 2002, according to the five year financial plan. Work has started – in December of 2000 the municipality announced it was putting money aside for the strategy and was looking at help from the provincial government in providing a supplementary homeowner grant. The municipality was also going to establish a planning team dedicated to processing employee housing applications.

The province has yet to come through with the supplementary homeowners grant.

And in the last two years council has rejected at least two development proposals that included substantial employee housing because they were deemed, on balance, to cause greater environmental or social detriments than benefits.

None of these decisions over the past three years has been simple or easy. Whistler is a complex, disparate community of people and ideas. It is also presented with opportunities that other communities would love to have.

On Nov. 16 this disparate community of people will have a chance to decide who among the 20 candidates should make decisions for them for the next three years.

Three years is a long time in Whistler.