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How much for that fire hall?

Our municipal government is like others in that its budget sets aside money for capital construction separately from those funds it earmarks for operating expenses. This division of money has always concerned me because I believe it allows for less scrutiny of the incredible costs of constructing public buildings. Last week’s council meeting showed the importance of examining the efficient use of all public funds, no matter how they are designated.

On Monday we learned that the capital budget for the three-bay fire hall at Spring Creek is $1.7 million. Knowing that the land cost is already covered and assuming a hall of 5,500 square feet, a taxpayer like myself must wonder how it could be $310 a square foot for something approximating a large garage. I would question why construction alone can cost even as much as $1.1 million ($200 a square foot). Did anyone think to ask Squamish what they spent on their new hall?

Outside the notion that things constructed in Whistler must always cost more than everywhere else, we must also understand some of the other reasons for part of this $600,000 differential. Public safety, employee satisfaction, the principles of "The Natural Step" and the "world class" appearance of "neighbourhood gateways" are all important considerations. There is no doubt that the costs of all public building must be considered with the longest term view. Nonetheless we seem to be letting these important ideals cloud our understanding of what things should really cost.

We also seem to be forgetting to ask if the money used pursuing such ideals might be used better elsewhere. At this same council meeting the Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association demonstrated the value of a community group receiving a small fraction of tax expenditures. WORCA showed that $8,000 can have an incredibly positive impact on services to both residents and tourists alike. We also learned that the museum needed half their $40,000 grant early this year. There are probably at least a dozen more community groups, equally successful and equally starved for funds.

It is reasonable to suggest that public funding through property taxes and development charges are not going to continue to increase as they once did and we must learn to set priorities now. I would hope that in the future council uses great care when allocating funds toward these expensive buildings. Perhaps it would help them if they contemplated that $600,000 represents enough museum and WORCA grants to reach the year 2015.

Dave Davenport

Whistler

Thank you for your recent editorial and extensive coverage on the municipality’s five year financial plan. However, I must point out that skyrocketing property assessments have absolutely no impact on the amount of revenue collected from property taxes. It is the mill rate which is set each year by the municipality that determines how much the Whistler residential property owners will pay in property taxes. New development being added to the tax rolls each year should allow property taxes to decrease. However, the municipality has followed the policy over the last four years of increasing the property taxes paid by the average homeowner by the increase in the Vancouver consumer price index plus 1 per cent for RCMP costs. This has allowed the municipality to increase expenditures at a greater rate than the cost of inflation. This, in itself, is not bad as long as the taxpayers receive value for the expenditures made.

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