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Whistler municipality owed millions for debris barrier

Mayor says deal was "the right thing to do at the time"



Municipal budgeting is emerging as one of the top priorities in the minds of candidates and voters in the run-up to the 2011 election.

That's because Whistler's budget has been rocked in recent years.

Reaching build-out put an end to a decades-long steady stream of new tax revenues, provincial changes to the strata tax rules in 2008 left a $2 million gap in the budget, pay parking failed to deliver on the projected revenue estimates and transit costs have gone through the roof, to name but a few of the issues.

The response from council of the day has been a 5.5 per cent property tax increase in 2008, followed by a 19 per cent increase over the last three years.

Over the next four weeks, Pique will run a series of municipal budget stories delving into specific subjects.

This week the focus is the little-known $5.7 million debris barrier that is protecting the village from flooding high above on Fitzsimmons Creek. The debris barrier was part of an omnibus deal that brought Whistler pay parking, satisfied First Nations and helped Whistler Blackcomb and the province.

"At the time it seemed like the best solution," reflected Mayor Ken Melamed.

Taxpayers were never supposed to pay for the barrier - the money was instead to come from the municipality's general savings account (known as reserves) and then paid back through pay parking revenue over the next 20 years.

But that plan has fallen flat after the parking revenues failed to deliver the anticipated $2 million.

And now there is no mechanism to pay that money back into reserves - money that has been earmarked for other things in the next two decades. If the money isn't paid back, future projects will have to be cut.

"To come now and try and dissect the decision is kind of pointless," said the mayor. "We did it for really sound financial principles - remembering that partnerships are everything."

The barrier was a critical project.

A glacial drift called the Fitzsimmons Slip, located two kilometres above the village, is gradually moving down slope into Fitzsimmons Creek. The risk lies in the potential for it to block the creek causing a build up of water and debris, which would then suddenly release and bring a huge debris flow into the village parking lots.

A 2005 report by Vancouver based EBA Engineering stated that choosing to do nothing but continue with current practices: "... fails to reduce the risk of loss of life or property due to a known hazard. This in turn leads to the potential for increased liability on the part of (Whistler) or significant negative publicity in the pre-Olympic period."

But who was to pay for it? Was it a municipal responsibility or a provincial one? Was it a mixture of both?

"There came a time pre-Games to address a number of issues outstanding with the province that were going to put us on the right footing, where we need to be going into the Games," said the mayor. "And the debris barrier was one of them."

And so, the complex negotiations began, involving not only the province and the municipality but also First Nations and Whistler Blackcomb.

The deals were inked in 2007 and 2008. Whistler would pay for the debris barrier and in return the province would hand over the day skier lots, valued at $10 million. Whistler Blackcomb would no longer pay for the upkeep of those lots - hundreds of thousands of dollars every year - that would come from pay parking. And First Nations would get development rights in Whistler for their agreement.

"If you look down the road we still have some jellybeans in the jar with the province and First Nations and Whistler Blackcomb who were our key partners who saw benefits from this deal," said the mayor.

"We need to remind them that we were great partners."

Whistler also paid more than $4.5 million to upgrade the lots but that money had been set aside in reserves over the years for that purpose.

Paying back the barrier at five per cent interest over 20 years means a $459,000 payment into reserves each year.

While he wasn't specific about how that money will be found, particularly in light of a million dollar shortfall in transit, Melamed said:

"We believe that there are some options," he said.

"That is for the next council to wrestle with."