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Metro mayors insist province owns TransLink 'chaos'

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts says higher property taxes for TransLink are a non-starter. - Black Press file photo
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts says higher property taxes for TransLink are a non-starter.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

Metro Vancouver mayors have shot back at Transportation Minister Todd Stone, insisting the province and not they are responsible for the failure so far to map out a referendum on raising more money for TransLink.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was among those Wednesday who expressed disappointment that Stone has framed the impasse as one stemming from the mayors' failure to decide what should be done.

"Mayors have been very unified for five years now," Robertson said. "All of this current chaos is generated by the province. We've done everything we could do to put forward concrete suggestions and be constructive and advocate for more transit in the region."

Robertson and others noted the mayors' council has no legal role in setting transit spending priorities – the unelected TransLink professional board has made those decisions since the province stripped power from elected officials in 2008 – and mayors therefore can't decide what list of transit expansion projects might be financed by proposed new funding tools.

"The referendum question is entirely up to the B.C. government," he said.

"Mayors and residents and businesses in the region are in limbo now waiting for them to take leadership and put the question forward and support the referendum effort that they have concocted."

Robertson also said it was "surprising and "ridiculous" for Stone to suggest that mayors could raise property taxes to fund much of the transit expansion needed as a million and a half new residents arrive over the next 30 years.

Mayors have proposed new funding sources – a vehicle levy, a small regional sales tax, a share of carbon tax and eventually some form of road pricing.

"We need the B.C. government to understand this is a huge priority. They can't keep ignoring it and playing silly bugger with it."

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts also said it's up to the province to solve how it delivers its promised referendum.

"The initiative is a provincial initiative," she said.

Watts also said TransLink property taxes – now at $235 for the average home on top of municipal property tax – can't rise any faster than the automatic annual increases of three per cent already provided for in provincial legislation.

"I just don't know where that room is to put everything on property taxes," Watts said, adding her own house's TransLink property tax was $854 in 2012 and $1,039 in 2013.

She said amounts like that are "unaffordable" for seniors on fixed incomes and young families trying to get started.

North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton, who was acclaimed as mayors' council chair for 2014 on Wednesday, said mayors are firm that property tax is maxed out as a source for TransLink because it is also under pressure to deliver civic projects and other regional infrastructure.

"We've got all kinds of strain on that," Walton said. "It's just not appropriate to continue to use property tax as a primary source, especially when it's essentially taxation without representation when it comes to TransLink because there's simply no elected person who controls the use of that."

Walton said he hopes the province agrees to changes soon to reform TransLink and restore more control by elected leaders, but added it's "puzzling" that mayors would be blamed when they have no control.

Even if a deal is struck fast, there's now less than 10 months left until the referendum that's to run in tandem with the Nov. 15 civic elections.

Walton noted a transit funding referendum in Los Angeles succeeded in raising the local sales tax but required 32 months of public engagement.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said mayors have told the province for years they want new funding sources and a reform of TransLink governance to regain elected control over where new taxes go.

"Each and every stage that we try to deal with something, we're rejected and refused by the provincial government," he said.

Corrigan said it's the province that has delayed and dodged commitments yet is once again trying to unfairly paint mayors as dysfunctional.

He said he won't help craft the referendum question as long as mayors have no control.

"If I'm going to raise money I want to be responsible for how that money is spent."

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