Among all the other hot button issues being addressed at this year’s Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) Convention, municipal finance may well turn out to be the most significant for Whistler.
Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden attended Monday’s (Sept. 24) mayor’s caucus along with around 140 other municipal leaders to address the recent trend of senior levels of government “downloading” responsibilities — without additional funding — to municipalities across B.C.
Many of the province’s mayors, Whistler’s included, first expressed their concerns that the offloading of federal and provincial duties onto local governments is putting an unnecessary strain on municipal operations at B.C.’s inaugural mayor’s caucus, held in May.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that the more we talk about it with the province and with the federal government, that there’s a better awareness being built,” said Wilhelm-Morden.
At the mayors’ first caucus, held in Penticton, they outlined their frustration with a system that is woefully unequipped to take on more funding responsibilities.
Municipalities tend to rely largely on property taxes to fund infrastructural projects, but many local government officials feel that this revenue stream isn’t designed to take on unexpected funding needs brought down from on high.
Whistler has managed to largely avoid the same amount of pressure that other municipalities face from senior government, said Wilhelm-Morden, “because we’re so young” as a community.
The main issue facing Whistler, according to the mayor, is the level of uncertainty surrounding the release of funds from federal and provincial sources.
“It’s not a case of the mayors wanting more money, we need more certainty in funding,” she said from Victoria. “For example, if you’re talking about replacement of infrastructure, the federal government runs a program that’s set to expire in 2014, that you have to apply for, and you might get it or you might not get it, there’s no certainty attached to it.”
Wilhelm-Morden highlighted the municipality’s ongoing efforts to acquire federal gas tax funding for a $3.8 million infrastructure project that would extend Whistler’s sewer line to Alta Lake residents, who are still served by septic tanks.
“We keep applying to these various grant programs and get turned down, and we have to wait until the next grant program comes along and apply again and it’s frustrating,” she said.
One of the main goals of Monday’s meeting — and the focus of a new UBCM steering committee made up of mayors that will report their findings at next year’s conference — was to assess any alternative funding methods other than property taxes that could be used for local infrastructure projects.
A handful of Scandinavian countries rely on personal income taxes to beef up their revenue streams, said Dr. Harry Kitchen, an economics professor at Trent University, during a presentation at the UBCM meeting Monday.
With municipal officials voicing their concerns to senior ministers until the summit ends Friday (Sept. 28), is Mayor Wilhelm-Morden confident the effects of downloading will be mitigated in the future?
“Well, no. It’s something that’s really going to take a focused effort. We’ve got the steering committee, but they’re all mayors and they’re all very busy and this is just one of the myriad of issues that these people are faced with.”