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Taxes and the art of municipal maintenance

RMOW efforts to limit property tax hike to four per cent include stringent department engagement

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Suggestions that 2011 property taxes will be higher than planned are untrue, says Whistler Councillor Chris Quinlan.

In 2009, the Resort Municipality of Whistler forecasted the need for a 19 per cent tax hike to accommodate a variety of issues facing the municipality, including build out and aging infrastructure costs. The last four per cent of that hike is to take place in 2011, but preliminary budget figures for the upcoming year show an unexpected shortfall of $2.8 million due to fiscal inconsistencies surrounding transit and pay parking. But finding the extra money is not likely to mean a further tax increase.

"The direction that council has given staff is four per cent. There's no option on that," said Quinlan. "All the work we've been doing on the budget has been getting it to four per cent, so staff has some challenges ahead of them and council is going to make some decisions but there will not be a tax increase beyond four per cent."

To navigate the budgetary divide, the municipality is taking a hard look at its services and is hoping an extensive review of Whistler's bus system being conducted by BC Transit will close some of the gap.

The municipality conducted its own organizational review after the Olympics, followed by a service delivery review to identify how municipal departments can better and more efficiently manage their ministrations. After 2011, keeping tax increases to one and a half to two per cent above the rate of inflation and Consumer Price Index (CPI) will be the municipality's goal.

Departments within RMOW have been given a four per cent budget increase as part of contractual labour cost increase for 2011. If their costs go beyond four per cent, managers will have to mitigate the increases by generating more revenue; cutting expenses; reducing or cutting services or hours; providing services in a different way; or raising taxes. The first two options are considered by RMOW as having the least impact and are preferable to the others, but some departments feel they have no options left to maintain the status quo.

The Whistler Public Library (WPL) has trimmed the fat in every way possible but says a decrease in the number of operating hours is likely the only solution that will fix their department's budget woes. A final decision on the cuts was made at a board meeting on Wednesday night after Pique went to press but reducing opening hours from 53 to 44 per week was looking like the most likely avenue available to the WPL board.

"The fact of the matter is that our human resources costs are 86 per cent of our budget so we didn't really have a choice," said library director Lauren Stara. "I cut all the things that I could, things like travel, conferences, training and supplies and even when I had cut those things as much as I could I was still faced with a significant shortfall. Staff is the only place we can get the amount of money we need to make up for it."

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