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No help from community charter before 2003

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Any new financial tools the Liberal government?s community charter provides to municipalities aren?t likely to be available when Whistler drafts its budget for 2003.

It will probably be next fall before the community charter, which will replace the Local Government Act, becomes law, Whistler Mayor Hugh O?Reilly said Monday. Once the charter is enacted, it appears municipalities will then have to present their individual cases to the province for new "financial tools" ? likely new taxes.

Since municipalities now prepare their municipal budgets in the fall, and adopt them by December, it seems unlikely any new financial tools will be available before the 2003 municipal budgets are adopted.

"There?s more to it than they thought. It?s taking a little longer to implement," O?Reilly said of the community charter, which was the focus of workshops at last week?s Union of British Columbia Municipalities conference in Vancouver.

West Vancouver-Garibaldi MLA Ted Nebbeling, minister of state for community charter, introduced the Community Charter Council Act last month. It was one of the things the Liberals promised to do during their first 90 days in office.

Nebbeling chairs a Community Charter Council which is currently gathering input and will prepare recommendations for the legislation by Jan. 15. The bill will then be introduced in the spring session of the legislature.

O?Reilly said there weren?t a lot of new details about the community charter available at the UBCM conference, although it was made clear any new powers granted municipalities would have to be in an area that is not provincial jurisdiction.

One of the key ideas behind the community charter is that it allows municipalities more autonomy to design systems according to their individual strengths and abilities, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Municipal delegates attending the UBCM conference were told that if they saw a funding mechanism or idea somewhere that appealed to them they should bring it back to the Community Charter Council.

Whistler has for several years been quietly advocating for some new funding mechanism to "spread the load around," in O?Reilly?s words. Property taxes account for 42 per cent of municipal revenues in the 2001 budget of $44 million. Other sources of revenue are fees and charges, the sewer, water and solid waste funds, transit, investments and the hotel tax. The hotel tax is the only source of municipal revenue directly tied to tourist visits. So when resort infrastructure has to expand to meet the needs of visitors, the main source of funding is usually property taxes.

"If we don?t find (new) ways to fund the resort we?re going to be in trouble, because (the resort business) is becoming extremely competitive," O?Reilly said. "We?re going to plead our case that if we can?t maintain the product, the whole province is going to suffer more."

Most mountain resort towns in the United States have their own resort tax, and are much less dependent on property taxes than are Canadian towns. While the resort tax ties municipal revenue to the number of tourists in American resort, that can be a double-edged sword.

"If we collected most of our income like our competitors do, the economic slowdown would mean a smaller budget," O?Reilly said. But revenue from property taxes will remain steady, unless property values decline.

Earlier this week the Vail Daily reported local governments throughout Colorado?s mountain resort towns were reviewing their budgets and scaling back revenue projections in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the economic slowdown.

Counc. Ken Melamed reported that one of the other implications of the community charter is that the province may turn decisions on agricultural land reserves over to local communities. Much of the Pemberton valley is currently designated agricultural land reserve, which means no development on the land.

Melamed suggested if the ALR designation is dropped it could "change the face of Pemberton almost overnight."

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