It looks like Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden will stay true to one of her major campaign promises in 2013, with no changes proposed to property tax levels in the RMOW’s draft budget for the second year in a row, although that’s not something that Whistler homeowners should get accustomed to.
“That’s not a trend that one can be able to expect in the future,” said the RMOW’s director of planning Ken Roggeman. “There needs to be some expectation that there will be increases in subsequent years.”
The draft document was presented during Monday’s (Jan. 28) Committee of the Whole meeting, giving council an opportunity to provide their input into the budget ahead of further public consultation slated for next month and its eventual adoption, expected in March.
The draft process went smoother for council and municipal staff this year, said Wilhelm-Morden, who’ve had a year of working together since council was elected in November, 2011.
“We really didn’t start our budget process until January (last year) and we have to have the bylaws approved in May, and we like to do it long before then if we can,” she said. “This year we got into the process much earlier. The members of the Finance and Audit Committee are more comfortable and understanding of the municipal finance process, and it’s gone really quite smoothly so far.”
Municipal staff used a zero-based budget this year, counter to what they’ve done in the past. Typically, municipal departments are given a budget baseline determined by the previous year’s revenue and expenditure numbers. This year, departments had to start with a clean slate, justifying each budget line item. This resulted in some savings for staff that they are looking to apply towards returning municipal service levels.
A 2011 RMOW review that eliminated service inefficiencies also created additional savings, and municipal staff made several recommendations to improve municipal service levels following the public’s input into the budget process over the past few months.
High on the list for many in the community is increasing operating hours at the public library and returning snow clearing service back to prior levels, especially on the Valley Trail.
“We will be able to accommodate some or all of these changes as they’re proposed within the proposed 2013 budget and not have an impact on the property tax revenues and utility revenues that would be required,” said Wilhelm-Morden.
One of the recommendations was to open the library on Sundays, at an estimated cost of $60,000, which municipal staff expects will go forward.
Other service delivery recommendations included increasing Village maintenance efforts, at an estimated cost of $54,000, and improving irrigation, turf, horticultural, park sanitation and snow clearing services.
It is expected that there will be an increase to municipal recreational user fees, however.
The RMOW also won’t take on any new long-term debt this year. Municipal debt payments for 2013 are estimated to be $2.8 million. The municipally owned Whistler2020 Development Corporation (WDC) still owes approximately $1.6 million for the construction of the Whistler Athlete’s Village for the 2010 Olympics. Roggeman said he expects WDC sales to cover the debt in time for the June payment deadline, although the RMOW can dip into its reserves if not.
Wilhelm-Morden discussed implementing a “thoughtful” reserve management policy for the muni in the future at a council retreat in Vancouver this week.
“Reserves are what we use to finance to a large degree some of our capital projects, new projects, and significant annual maintenance projects. But we’ve never really had a municipal policy for establishing the amount we contribute to those various reserves annually,” she said. “It’s not a sexy legacy, but I would really like to see us have a policy for saving into reserves in place before this council’s term is over.”
Whistler also expects to see a modest increase to its additional hotel room tax (AHRT) this year. It’s a two per cent tax levied by the province on accommodation rentals in several communities in B.C., including Whistler.
“A large part of these funds … go towards funding resort programming and operating costs,” said Roggeman. “There’s also a significant amount that goes towards funding projects.”
The RMOW’s finance director said the muni can expect around a two per cent AHRT increase annually.
Another major issue at the council table on Monday was how the RMOW put in place what Coun. Jack Crompton called “a down year mitigation policy” in the event that the resort suffers economically due to poor weather.
“When you are, to a certain extent, a weather-dependent resort, and the weather doesn’t produce what you want it to produce, there are problems,” said Wilhelm-Morden. “We have to talk about what other actions could be available for us if we have some devastating winters or summers. It is something that we’ve been kicking around a bit.”
The mayor added that increasing popularity of summer programming in the resort — this August saw record visitor numbers to the resort — should help to counter some of the effects a poor winter season might have.
The public can continue to provide input into the municipal draft budget, with a second open house scheduled for Feb. 19.
Visit www.whistler.ca/budget for more information.