Whistler resident John Sinclair wanted to get to the root of the biggest challenges facing the municipal budget this year and so, he simply asked point blank.
What are the two most contentious issues at your table right now, asked Sinclair at the budget open house on Tuesday, Feb. 25.
He posed his question to a line of senior staff and council members sitting on stage at Millennium Place.
"Council's salary," joked the municipality's chief administrative officer, Mike Furey.
Councillor Duane Jackson, the council rep on the municipal Finance and Audit Committee and arguably the best versed at the council table on the ins and outs of the $70 million-plus budget, answered the question directly.
The answer had already been alluded to in the presentation; "labour increases," he said.
The other issue, added Jackson, is the increasing demand on services as a result of increased visitation, after Whistler set a record-breaking summer of guests visiting the resort.
Those challenges, and other things, have created a roughly $500,000 gap in the 2014 budget between revenues and expected expenditures — a gap the municipality is trying to narrow and is looking to the community for feedback on how to do that.
"We're feeling very optimistic about this budget," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden at the start of the meeting.
"Your input, I can't stress enough, is very important to us."
Last August the municipality announced a wage agreement for a four-year deal with municipal staff. The agreement spans 2012-2016 with a 6.75 per cent salary increase in the time. The effects of that agreement are just now being felt.
It translates to $1.5 million in increased staffing costs.
"That by far and large is the biggest budget challenge for 2014," said Ken Roggeman, the municipality's director of finance in his presentation at the open house.
"There's no doubt that's a big piece to fit within the budget."
After settling the deal with non-unionized workers, the municipality later reached the same deal with its union workers in CUPE 2010.
Demand on services
While it has less of an impact on the bottom line compared to the wage increases, the municipality is struggling with the problems of its success, admittedly not a bad problem to have.
Last summer was a record-breaking summer and put pressure on municipal services, pressure like keeping bathrooms clean and changing garbage cans more frequently.
June's room nights were up 15 per cent in 2013 over the previous year, making it the busiest June on record.
July's room nights were up seven per cent over 2012 in terms of room nights booked, and July 2013 now stands as the busiest on record, too, beating out July 2011. August was also busier than in 2012.
The volume of room nights was just one part of the picture. Room rates were also up.
In June 2013, all key performance indicators including RevPAR (revenue per available room), ADR (average daily room rate) and paid occupancy were above the 10-year average. While the destination market was flat compared with June 2012, the regional market was up significantly.
In July 2013, both regional and destination markets were up over the previous year. Similarly, paid room nights and RevPAR were notably higher than the 10-year average while ADR was slightly below.
The solution to deal with this growing visitation is to increase staffing in village maintenance to deal with the problem.
Roughly $400,000 in RMI (Resort Municipality Initiative) funding, designed to grow tourism in the resort, has been earmarked to meet the rising demand on services.
With labour costs on the rise and service demands going up, the $500,000 gap in the budget could translate into a roughly one to 1.5 per cent increase in taxes.
That's not to say a tax increase is a fait accompli; the municipality is still looking for community feedback. But with just a dozen community members at the first budget open house, feedback was scant.
One community member asked if Whistler's transit system would see any savings now that it was switching off the hydrogen pilot project and back to clean diesel buses.
"The short answer is 'no,'" said Joe Paul, general manager of infrastructure services.
He explained that though the hydrogen buses cost more to run than diesel, Whistler was only ever on the hook to pay the equivalent diesel costs.
Resident Anne Townley asked if Whistler waste services would be getting more expensive with provincial changes on the horizon.
"Yes it will," said Paul.
He added, however, that the long-term debt on the composter would be paid off in the coming years. That will free up $330,000 annually.
By 2018, Paul said, the solid waste fund would be completely self-sufficient.
Resident Corinne Allison had another question directed to Paul, specifically about the White Gold water pipes that have asbestos used as a reinforcing material in the pipes.Those are scheduled for replacement in the coming years, said Paul.
Roggeman added more insight to the budgeting process as a whole. For the past two years, council has not raised taxes in the resort.
"It's unusual to have zero and zero (per cent tax increases) for two years," stressed Roggeman. "That's not the typical scenario... We can't necessarily have zero and zero every year."
Community Life Survey
The meeting also offered the first look at the most up-to-date Community Life Tracking Survey, which took place in the fall.
In it, 300 permanent residents and 200 second homeowners were surveyed. The survey is designed to support transparency and accountability at the hall, inform decision-making and facilitate the measurement of trends over time.
Ted Battiston, manager of special projects for the CAO's office, gave a broad outline of the results of that survey at the budget meeting.
While many indicators of not just community living, but also the municipality's corporate health, were on the right track, there were some red flags.
Real Median Income, for example, is not trending in the right direction and is not keeping up with the rate of inflation.
Water use in the resort is on ongoing problem, also not trending in the right direction. And cost recovery at Meadow Park Sports Centre is another red flag.
The survey results will be posted on the municipal website.
The draft project and operating budgets are expected to go to council on March 18.
Community members can email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The budget bylaws will be considered at the April 15 meeting.