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Municipality launches budget process

Amid tough economic times, municipality hopes to approve both 2009 and 2010 budgets on May 15

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The times are tough, and the municipality’s road to balancing both the 2009 and 2010 budgets this May will likely be paved with bumps and hurdles.

That was the take-home message from Monday night's "fireside chat" at the Whistler Public Library, which saw about 30 people from the community come out to learn more about the Resort Municipality of Whistler's (RMOW) budget process for this year.

“As everyone is painfully aware, a lot has changed in the world out there,” Mayor Ken Melamed said to open the discussion.

The mayor did not directly say Whistler property taxes would increase this year above the rate inflation, but he implied that scenario is likely.

Last year — which was the first year the RMOW raised taxes above the rate of inflation in over 20 years — analysts at municipal hall projected a $1.3 million shortfall for both 2009 and 2010. Since then the world economy has plummeted.

The affects of the global economy on the municipality's finances are far reaching, including a decline in visitors to Whistler this winter which, consequently, will likely lead to a 15 to 20 per cent dip in the hotel tax Whistler collects from local hotels. In 2008 the RMOW recouped approximately $10 million from the hotel tax.

“Keep in mind that in the big context of things, we have a policy to maintain tax increase to the rate of inflation," said Melamed.

There are only two realistic ways the municipality can raise revenue: either increase property taxes or cut municipal services.

Melamed reminded the audience that the Olympics, and visitors year-round, expect a certain level of municipal service.

“On behalf of Canada, we have a responsibility. Canada doesn’t expect us to fund the Games, but we have a certain responsibility,” he said.

The mayor added that Whistler has a brand name to maintain as the premier mountain resort in North America.

“Being that we are in the resort business, it is important to maintain the integrity of the brand,” said Melamed.

“People are coming here with expectations and they don’t care how much we agonize over the budget… We know that when people come and see a lower quality, it takes a lot of years to rebuilt the faith in the brand.”

Monday's meeting is the first of a series of "opportunities" the RMOW representatives will hold this year on the 2009 and 2010 budgets. Several more community meetings are planned for the next few months. An interactive budget forum has also been launched on the municipality's website, www.whistler.ca. And the municipality will be conducting a telephone survey in February.

One question asked will be: "If Council had to cut expenditures to meet the budget, where would you prefer to see cuts?"

While Melamed said input from the community is welcome throughout the budget period, he reminded the audience that the final decision ultimately rests with council.

“Last year there were some requests to have a higher level of engagement over the budget," said Melamed.

"Some people thought they wanted to see all the spreadsheets, and they had some expectations that frankly we didn’t think we could meet. I hope we can get to an agreement to understand what that participation can look like.”

The municipality hopes to approve both the 2009 and 2010 budget this May because things will likely be busy next year leading up to the 2010 Olympic Games in February. This will be the first year the RMOW balances a two-year budget.

"If it was not for the Olympics, we would be doing things the way we have always done them because we like to have certainty in the numbers," said Melamed, adding some numbers will likely be presented in "ranges" and "best guesses."

The municipality will announce expected tax increases in February. The reason this year's budget process has been pushed back is because of the November election for council and mayor.

Meanwhile, a blue ribbon panel of financial experts from B.C. is currently developing a new long-term financial plan to replace the one formated in 1999. Melamed said their report should be ready sometime this spring.

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