Opinion » Editorial

Revenue challenges ahead for Whistler?



With the close of the nomination period last Friday voters can finally begin to assess the candidates for the next Whistler council. And a cursory look suggests some candidates will have to spend the next couple of weeks making themselves known to voters before an assessment can be made.

This, in part, is another reflection of the job the current council has done over the last three years. None of the candidates appear to be running because of some perceived egregious error, such as pay parking, that must be redressed.

No doubt the candidates will let us know what they see as the issues facing Whistler over the next four years, and beyond, but there isn't a huge laundry list of things that need to be fixed. Continuing to manage the municipality's affairs well seems to be most people's priority.

But it would be negligent to ignore the handful of issues on the horizon. They are complex issues and, importantly, few of them can be completely resolved by the next Whistler council.

For example, Whistler can work to improve its relationship with neighbouring First Nations but to really address 150 years of neglect, grievances and expectations is going to have to involve provincial and federal governments. The annulment of Whistler's most recent Official Community Plan is a minor footnote in an issue of this magnitude. Still, how Whistler copes in the vacuum of an up-to-date OCP has already been an issue for some people.

Of perhaps more pressing concern is the Resort Municipality Initiative funding — about $7.5 million annually — that Whistler has become dependent upon. Indications from Victoria are the RMI funding may be reduced, repurposed or no longer made available to Whistler in the next couple of years.

It's hard to predict what the provincial government is going to do but we can look at the context:

• the province is conducting a core review of all its services;

• nearly 70 per cent of the province's current budget goes to health care and education; all the other ministries get what's left;

• the province is looking for more money;

• tourism's "moment" was the 2010 Winter Olympics; the province's priority now — Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and any other plans that may exist — is liquefied natural gas;

• RMI funding only goes to the 14 municipalities that are members of the Resort Collaborative and therefore isn't as visible an issue as, for instance, ferry rate increases;

• Whistler hasn't raised property taxes in the last three years, which may be interpreted by Victoria as a sign that Whistler no longer needs the RMI money.

There isn't an immediate crisis over RMI funding, and Whistler has built up a bit of a RMI reserve fund. But revenue is always going to be an issue for municipalities.

Whistler campaigned long and hard for "financial tools" in the lead-up to the Olympics and in 2007 was finally granted additional hotel tax revenue. Since then that additional hotel tax has become RMI funding.

But RMI is not the only source of revenue the next Whistler council can pursue. A case can be made that broadening the business base in Whistler — while maintaining existing limits on development — could boost municipal revenues.

Dozens of towns across North America have made efforts to attract high-tech businesses; Whistler has not. Yet August's GROW Conference suggested the resort would be a great fit for some tech companies, certainly as a testing ground but perhaps also leading to satellite offices.

Whistler is not alone in relying on its good looks and charm rather than a specific strategy to attract businesses. As Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president and chief policy officer at the Business Council of B.C. wrote to the Vancouver Sun earlier this month:

"We are poor at what the economic development folks call 'business attraction and retention.' There's no regional economic development plan, agency or marketing effort, nor even a convenient regional database with relevant information that might be of interest to prospective investors. Instead, the individual municipalities that make up the region either do nothing in this domain, or — as with Vancouver, Surrey etc. — run their own (smallish) individual economic development programs and agencies. As a result, there is no coherent or effective message communicated to outside companies and investors as to why they should consider Metro Vancouver."

That contrasts with the approach taken by a place like Bend, Oregon. The town's website, www.bendoregon.gov, lists reasons to re-locate a business to Bend and resources available to support new businesses, including incentive and investment programs. Bend even has a Business Advocate, whose name and phone number is published on the website.

Certainly any effort to attract new businesses to Whistler must fit within the development parameters and infrastructure — both physical and social — that Whistler has established. But that's the sort of challenge that candidates for council should relish.

Bob Barnett, Pique's founding publisher and editor, is re-joining the editorial pages to cover election issues

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