A property tax increase this year is all but guaranteed.
"We are looking at a shortfall for 2009 of approximately $3 million," Lisa Landry, the municipality's general manager of economic viability, announced at Tuesday's council meeting.
This first glimpse at the budget numbers suggests that homeowners will likely pay an extra $20 in taxes for every $100,000 of assessed value on their property, said a straightforward Landry.
For example, taxes on a $600,000 property will likely increase $120 from last year. And taxes on a $1.2 million house will see a $240 boost.
The tax hike is on top of the last year's increase, when council voted to raise taxes above the rate of inflation for the first time in 20 years to mitigate a $3.8 million shortfall. The 2008 property tax increase was $11 for every $100,000 of assessed value.
"We are seeing cost increases related to transit, our labour costs, our non-labour costs, our capital contributions that need to be brought back on stream, and our investment income that is reduced this year because of what is happening in the capital markets," said Landry.
She explained that B.C. Transit expects local transit costs to rise $1.4 million this year, at least partly due to construction of the new bus hub near Nesters. More information on those costs should be available by next week.
The municipality also plans to put away $500,000 annually over the next five years for capital contributions to reserves, to make up for the $2.5 million cut made when balancing last year's budget.
Labour costs are also up $675,000 this year. Municipal wages are tied by a formula to six communities in the Lower Mainland. Non-labour costs are up about $165,000. And the municipality's investment income is down about $250,000 due to the world economy.
But property taxes are not going to be the only increase homeowners see on their 2009 tax bill.
Landry said water rates will probably also rise by $75. Whistler's water utility rate has been running at a loss for several years, and currently sits around $87 annually, compared to the Canadian average of $274.
Again, the utility increase is on top of the $91 increase Whistler residents saw last year.
"We have a lot of work to do to look at these things," said Councillor Eckhard Zeidler after hearing Landry's presentation.
The municipality is working on the 2010 budget at the same time as the 2009 budget, and a $1.3 million shortfall is expected again next year. That would mean an additional $10 tax increase on every $100,000 of assessed value in 2010. Cumulatively, the tax increase per $100,000 of assessed value could be $41 between 2008 and 2010.
Analysts at municipal hall have known for a while that balancing the 2009 budget would be a challenge. Last year, before the world economy plummeted, senior staff projected at least a $1.3 million shortfall.
To keep residents up to speed with the 2009 and 2010 budgets, municipal staff have scheduled at least four meetings in the near future, with an open house set for Thursday, Feb. 19. (See side bar for details.)
"We are going to bring the public along every step off the way as we go from here," Landry told council.
Landry said one of the challenges with this year's budget is a projected 20 per cent dip in hotel tax this winter. Summer revenues are also estimated to be down 12 per cent.
"Hotel tax from December, January, February and March amount to two-thirds of the amount of hotel tax that we bring in a particular year," said Landry. She added that the municipality will know exactly how much money it will get for December by the end of this month.
"These are very crucial months. To know what is happening in December and January is very indicative of what we are going to be seeing for the rest of the year."
Last year, municipal hall received $11 million in hotel tax.
Following Landry's presentation, Councillor Grant Lamont also put forward a notice of motion to freeze councillor salaries this year. Hs motion will come forward at the next scheduled council meeting on Feb. 17.
More information on the municipality's 2009 and 2010 budgets should unfold at the following public meetings:
Feb 17: Regular council meeting, starting at 5:30 p.m., MY Millennium Place
Feb 19: Public open house
March 3: Regular council meeting, starting at 5:30 p.m., MY Millennium Place
March 11: Public open house
April 7: Budget bylaw process initiated