A small tax increase is on the horizon for Whistlerites this year.
The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) is proposing a 1.9-per-cent increase to property value taxes and a one-per cent increase to sewer parcel taxes and fees. No increases have been recommended for the water parcel tax or to the solid waste user fees. This is Whistler's third modest property tax hike in as many years, following three years of no increases between 2012 and 2014.
"We have kept the tax increases at the cost of living, and we anticipate doing that in 2017 as well," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "But we have not been doing that by robbing our reserves. We've continued making the contributions to reserves that are dictated by our reserve policy, so our reserves are very healthy."
On Tuesday, Feb. 28, a sizable crowd packed into the Maury Young Arts Centre to get a glimpse of this year's proposed municipal budget and meet with staff and council. The 2017-2021 Five-Year Financial Plan consists of 182 projects costing $35,148,179. That's up from the roughly $25 million slated for 2017 in last year's financial plan, due primarily to the $9.2 million left over from the 2016 budget. Much of the project money will come out of the RMOW's reserves.
Some of the bigger-ticket items on the project list this year include:
• $6.8-million for a "significant upgrade" to the village Gateway Loop area that will include the construction of an eight-port coach bus bay. The project cost was nearly double staff's original estimates, and despite being torn over the high price tag, officials voted 5-2 in favour of the proposal at the Feb. 21 council meeting.
• $1.746 million for the maintenance of five village parkades that the municipality is responsible for.
• $1.65 million for a major recurring paving project.
• $1.645 million for the construction of a new waste depot on a former Fortis Gas site on Nesters Road. This includes an $850,000 interest-free loan to the Whistler Community Services Society to assist with the construction of their new facility at the same site. The development will enable the organization to consolidate all of its operations to a single building close to the village.
• $1.565 million to replace the existing Emerald water station.
• $1.1 million for ongoing work as part of the Alpine water-main replacement.
• $814,950 for a number of FireSmart projects throughout the resort that will rely on acquiring provincial funding.
• $600,000 to improve the "physical connectivity" between the Cultural Connector's six designated facilities, a continuation of the work that began in 2015.
• $160,000 this year, plus $3.993 million allocated in next year's budget for the analysis and site selection of a proposed artificial turf soccer field. This is down from the project's original cost estimates, which reached as high as $6.2 million.
"We do have a report coming to council at the first meeting in March, and it's going to make recommendations on honing in on one particular site (instead of the original six), and if we do that we'll be able to drop the cost of the turf field down even further," noted Wilhelm-Morden.
A large contingent from the Whistler Youth Soccer Club was in attendance and several people voiced their support for the project during the Q&A period.
"The long-term value both socially and financially is better with a turf field in Whistler's climate. Turf gives Whistlerites a 60-per-cent longer season and more than double daily playing hours," said club president PJ O'Heany, who added that the club is prepared to work with community partners to raise project funds and contribute to ongoing maintenance costs. "More programs, more opportunities for grassroots development, more community coaches and more affordable sporting options for all types of athletes."
But several attendees who spoke to Pique before the budget meeting felt the millions of dollars slated for the field would be better spent elsewhere.
"It's the amount of money they want to spend that's my issue," said Cliff Jennings. "There are (669) people on the (Whistler Housing Authority ownership) waitlist, so more money could be thrown at that, certainly."
Wilhelm-Morden said one of the RMOW's major priorities this year is to minimize "the unintended consequences" of the resort's climbing visitor numbers. Anne Townley, Whistler's 2015 Citizen of the Year, at one point asked the mayor if Whistler had an overarching plan in place to deal with growth, concerned RMOW staff might be taking "a piecemeal" approach. Wilhelm-Morden responded, saying the question of "how much growth is too much" is currently being considered by both the municipal Economic Partnership Initiative Committee and the Tourism Whistler board.
Staff has also proposed allocating $95,000 to the Mayor's Task Force on Housing for work that will include land planning for Whistler Housing Authority projects and a housing needs and demand survey. Another $100,000 has also been budgeted for the "proactive enforcement" of illegal nightly rentals and assistance with business licensing for legal rentals.
On the transportation file, the RMOW has budgeted $100,000 to update several traffic studies that will allow the municipal Transportation Advisory Group to "consider the current problems and potential solutions" to Whistler's traffic issues. The RMOW will also offer free transit service on select days this summer, building on last year's pilot project. Another $30,000 has been slated for a consulting study on the economic impacts of delays on Highway 99, along with $60,000 to replace outdated road sensors in municipal traffic lights.
Other proposed budget commitments of note:
• $289,286 to add a section to the Valley Trail along the front of the Meadow Park Sports Centre to allow for "safer access" to the facility for pedestrians and cyclists year-round.
• $150,000 for the development of the Russet Lake Hut, the first backcountry hut included in the Spearhead Huts System project.
• $100,000 over four years to build towards the Audain Art Museum's $25-million endowment fund, making the RMOW a founding member of the museum.
Last week, Wilhelm-Morden explained the impetus for the Audain contributions, which she believes will save the RMOW money in the long run: "The interest from that endowment will supplement the revenues for admission, memberships, rentals, and so on, so the gallery won't operate at a deficit, and furthermore, so the gallery won't need to ask the municipality for financial assistance on an annual basis with its operation budget."
• $75,000 to "advance and catalyze" incremental educational opportunities in the resort.
• $40,000 for the relocation of the Whistler Cenotaph to Olympic Plaza to "better accommodate Remembrance Day ceremonies and improve the visibility of the cenotaph on a year round basis." The proposal comes as something of a surprise considering the RMOW axed plans last year to move the war memorial, currently located in a parking lot behind the fire hall on Village Gate Boulevard, a spot some in the community believe is too hidden from public view. Wilhelm-Morden even went so far as saying in November that the cenotaph probably wouldn't relocate "as long as I'm around."
• $45,000 for bear management in the community.
• $30,000 for enhanced police, fire and bylaw enforcement during key dates on the event calendar, such as the Pemberton Music Festival, Crankworx and the May long weekend.
• $25,000 for ecosystem monitoring.
• $15,000 for a First Nations Cultural Liaison.
The full project list can be viewed at www.whistler.ca/sites/default/files/2017/Feb/related/4347/proposed_project_budgets.pdf.
Council will consider the proposed budget for adoption in April. In the meantime, the public can email their questions and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The budget is an ongoing annual process," Wilhelm-Morden explained. "It's not just something we focus on for two months at the beginning of the year, but it is really informed by the work, the surveys and our committees' input throughout course of the year."