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Mayors bristle over inability to scrutinize TransLink spending

A Canada Line train passes over a bridge between Vancouver and Richmond, B.C., on Friday October 7, 2011.

Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail/darryl dyck The Globe and Mail

A small revolt is under way among the region's mayors over their lack of control or information about the money TransLink spends.

Led by Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, they are demanding that the agency undergo the same kind of audit that cities will soon be facing. And she says TransLink's board or CEO could ask for that audit to be done by the provincial auditor-general on a cost-recovery basis, if they are sincere about being transparent.

"Before we go back to the public with our hand out again, we'd better have that measure in place," Ms. Watts said. She said mayors will be reluctant to put through any more tax increases until that kind of scrutiny is guaranteed.

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She acquired fresh ammunition this week when she got a copy of a letter sent out by TransLink saying it was doing a survey of 170 key stakeholders and offering them a $100 donation to the charity of their choice for completing it.

"That flies in the face of everything we're trying to do" to ensure the public their money is being well-spent, she said.

It wasn't the first time she, or other mayors, say they've discovered that TransLink is spending money on something they had no idea about. Another recent example was the $30,000 TransLink spent to study whether running a gondola up Burnaby Mountain was feasible – and ultimately decided it wasn't in the short term.

TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis said Thursday he welcomes more scrutiny. But he added the agency does get a fair amount already by the transportation commissioner, who is currently studying the agency's books to see whether its proposed 12.5-per-cent fare hike is justified, and other audits.

But Ms. Watts said those kinds of audits are different from the "value for money" ones that provincial and federal auditors do.

The mayors began pushing several months ago to have TransLink included as one of the agencies the newly created municipal auditor-general will examine. The province said no to that, but that hasn't been the end of the road for Ms. Watt or the mayors.

The mayors' lack of control over TransLink's operating budget has been a sore point since 2007, when then-transportation minister Kevin Falcon changed the governance of TransLink. Frustrated by the seesaw voting the mayors went through to approve the Canada Line, he created a new government-appointed board to oversee TransLink operations.

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Although Ms. Watts is the most vocal at the moment of the region's 21 mayors, others are equally resentful.

"The only opportunity we have to ask questions about it is in the mayors meetings, but it is kind of after the fact," said Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore. "Sometimes it feels as though we are not really part of what's going on."

Property taxes account for a quarter of TransLink's budget, and it's local politicians who frequently bear the brunt of complaints from taxpayers about the load.

The mayors only get to decide whether to approve any extra spending TransLink says it needs beyond the base operating budget. For example, the recent supplementary budget to pay for the Evergreen Line and new rapid-bus services in Surrey had to be approved by the mayors, who reluctantly agreed to a property-tax and gas-tax increase.

Vocal critics of the Liberal government such as Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan have been criticizing the control structure ever since 2007.

Mr. Corrigan was especially critical of TransLink's decision to spend $70-million to put in turnstiles, something that mayors had rejected earlier after two studies showing it would cost more to put them in than the agency would get back in revenue.

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But other mayors, Ms. Watts in particular, have become more outspoken about the lack of control recently.

Mr. Moore said TransLink is now the only big spender of tax dollars in B.C. that isn't subject to an external auditor.

Provincial and federal auditors can review parts of TransLink operations, but only to examine the use of dollars those governments have put into specific projects.

He said he assumes TransLink does internal audits to ensure money is being spent wisely, since most organizations of its size do, but mayors don't ever see those or know what's being audited.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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