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Kudos for council freezing taxes for three years

WB's CEO and president calls three years a 'tremendous legacy'

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Whistler council is taking the concerns of taxpayers seriously and should be congratulated, according to the BC director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

"From a taxpayer's point of view, we love hearing stories of communities and councils tightening their belts, getting their staff together... and really grinding through budgets and finding ways to save money, avoid duplication, update services that maybe aren't as necessary anymore and do all that hard work that pays off with tax freezes," said Jordan Bateman.

Three years of tax freezes in Whistler's case, rounding out the current council's term in office as it delivers its last $78.2-million budget.

It is, said Bateman, the longest-running current tax freeze in the province that he knows of.

B.C.'s director of provincial affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) said other communities in the province should be looking to Whistler.

"I would hope that other municipalities around B.C., particularly in Metro Vancouver, take a look at the RMOW and see if they can accomplish the same thing going forward," said Mike Klassen.

"Good for them for holding the line."

Just last year CFIB released research showing alarming trends in municipal operating spending for the first decade of the 21st century — 2000 to 2011. The spending in B.C. far outstripped the growth in population and it was "far beyond what should be considered as sustainable and fiscally responsible."

Whistler did not score well in that report.

"I do think that the economic slow down that took place just before that election (in 2011) was probably a real wake-up call for Whistler, that they knew that the good times and the big spending that was involved during the 2010 Games had probably come to an end and it was time to run an operation that was more sustainable," said Klassen.

Holding the line on taxes is also a signal to local businesses, susceptible to the rise and fall of tourism.

"That council is being considerate to business operators and wanting them to stay and continue to do business in Whistler," said Klassen.

Dave Brownlie, Whistler Blackcomb's president and CEO, praised the work in the hall.

"A three-year term with zero-per-cent increase is a tremendous legacy for this council," he said. "I commend both council and staff for their hard work and diligence."

Last week, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden spoke to the hard work involved in delivering three years of zero-per-cent tax increases and zero-per-cent fee increases in a row. It involved stripping down the budget to its bare bones and justifying costs and expenditures — a form of zero-base budgeting.

To the critics who may question why taxes aren't keeping pace with inflation, Wilhelm-Morden pointed to the year-over-year tax increases before this council took office — 5.5 per cent in 2008, eight per cent in 2009, seven per cent in 2010, four per cent in 2011.

In total, 24.5 per cent over four years.

That steady rise was in keeping with the Long Term Financial Plan, which called for tax increases to maintain then-current level of municipal services. That plan also stressed the importance of contributing to reserves, or savings.

"The coffers were full, so to speak," said Wilhelm-Morden, of the impact on cumulative tax hikes. "What we wanted to do was just really strip down the budget and deliver something that was sensible, which is exactly what we did."

Council has continued to put away 18 to 19 per cent in reserves, as it works to develop a specific reserves policy for just how much needs to be saved.

"We're putting 19 per cent away every year with no rationale for it other than that's what we've always done," said the mayor. "Some savings may be achieved there."

That said, Bateman added that it is refreshing to see a council look at these "sacred cows" and decide on the best way going forward.

"It's really important that councils reconsider some of these asset management programs," he said, pointing to the vehicle-replacement fund in particular.

"You can't keep doing things the way they have always been done. Taxpayers are demanding we do more with less."

The mayor admitted there was concern at the table about the perception that council wasn't being fiscally prudent, holding the line on taxes amid inflation, albeit slight, and $2.4 million in rising costs, chief among them labour costs.

"We considered that (perception) carefully and again, we just went back to the view that we weren't going to pass on tax increases just for the sake of passing on tax increases," said the mayor. "If the revenues were not required in this fiscal year and if we looked like we weren't going to jeopardize the taxpayers next year, then we could justify a zero-per-cent increase, even thought it is unprecedented."

Unprecedented in Whistler, true, but Penticton has had three years without increases from 2011 to 2013 (in 2011 it even reduced taxes by 0.5 per cent).

This year saw a two per cent increase in Penticton.

Port Coquitlam has a tax decrease too this year — a -0.21-per-cent tax change from 2013.

With that in mind Bateman said: "It's a silver medal for Whistler, but probably one that residents are pretty happy about."

Other budget items of interest include:

Fitzsimmons Slump Warning System

Whistler is installing an early warning system on Fitzsimmons Creek in the event of a catastrophic landslide and flooding event into the day lots.

The $50,000 project has more urgency this year in light of the new multi-million dollar Audain Art Museum, now under construction between Lots 3 and 4.

"The existence of the Audain Art Museum raised the interest in having this system in place sooner rather than later," said Wilhelm-Morden.

The early-detection equipment comes five years after the $5.7-million debris barrier was installed on the creek before the 2010 Olympic Games to protect Whistler from a failure on the sliding land, forcing a massive flood event.

"This (system) is something that was always contemplated by the municipality, notwithstanding the fact that we've got the debris barrier that was constructed in 2009," added the mayor.

The money will go toward a motion- or pressure-sensitive device on the slide and a communication system to municipal roads crews and emergency first responders.

Another $20,000 will also be spent this year on access improvement to the debris barrier to allow RMOW crews safe access to perform annual measurements and maintenance of the barrier.

RMI funding

The province has just released $9.4 million in Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding. The money comes as Whistler puts the finishing touches on its 2014 budget.

The bulk of that money — $7 million — is for 2014 tourism-related projects, the remainder for the following year.

It is not clear why the province has sent an advancer this year — that has never been done before.

Contingency Budget

Council is creating a contingency budget in 2014 out of operating reserves to pay for the unexpected.

An amount will be available to the CAO — with Finance and Audit Committee approval — to release funds for things like lawsuits and other unexpected expenditures that typically require budget amendments before council.

When asked if this will allow municipal money to be released without a public process, the mayor said: "To a limited extent.

"It provides us with some nimbleness that we would not otherwise have. And listen, I am the greatest supporter of accountability and transparency, but this just allows us some flexibility and some nimbleness in certain areas."

Any expenditures, she added, would be accounted for in the quarterly reports, made public every three months.

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