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Watts insists on TransLink audit ahead of more taxes

By JEFF NAGEL
February 8, 2012 · Updated 4:01 PM
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Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts says TransLink must be submitted to a performance audit before mayors consider raising new revenue sources for the transportation authority. / File

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts says she will try to block any new move to raise more taxes or tolls for TransLink until the transportation authority is subjected to a full performance audit.

And she says TransLink's latest example of waste underscores why tighter scrutiny of spending is needed.

TransLink has hired a polling firm to survey 170 key stakeholders this month about how well it communicates and to drum up participation it has promised to donate $100 to one of three local charities for each person who responds.

"I take offence," Watts said. "To go out with a survey about how well we communicate and give $100 per person to a charity – I just don't think TransLink has a lot of money to be giving away."

Metro Vancouver mayors must negotiate with the provincial government to find new revenue sources for TransLink by the end of this year or else a $23 average property tax increase kicks in to pay for the Evergreen Line and other transit upgrades approved last fall.

A two-cent increase in the TransLink's gas tax takes effect in April, but that will generate only about half of what's required.

Options to raise more money may include an annual vehicle levy, a second regional carbon tax or even broader tolls on Lower Mainland bridges and roads.

But Watts says she refuses to be part of that debate until an audit proceeds – something the provincial government has so far blocked.

"I will not go out and ask the general public to pay for one more thing until that audit is done."

If any new revenue sources are to be pursued, Watts said, taxpayers must have confidence their money is being spent appropriately.

The Mayors Council on Regional Transportation last month renewed its initial demand last fall for an audit of TransLink, either through B.C.'s Auditor General or the new Auditor General of Local Government (AGLG).

"We want to be able to stand up and be confident in saying TransLink is running a tight ship," said Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, vice chair of the mayors council.

"I don't think most of the mayors are concerned about who does the audit as long as there is some verification of the operating efficiencies of TransLink so we can tell taxpayers there are no hidden pots of money, there are no deficiencies that need to be corrected before we move forward on new funding sources."

Neither TransLink officials nor the chair of TransLink's board would comment on the repeated demand for an audit by the Mayors Council.

Fassbender said the TransLink board and management support the idea.

"They're wide open to it – there's no resistance there."

The province refused to add TransLink to the responsibilities of the to-be-appointed AGLG, which will scrutinize cities and regional districts.

But neither has it agreed yet to send in the provincial Auditor General.

Fassbender said he believes Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom is supportive, but neither the minister nor his staff were available for comment on the issue.

TransLink spokesperson Erin Dermer confirmed TransLink has hired Ipsos Reid to conduct the communications survey of MLAs, Metro-area mayors and councillors, senior civic administrators and others in the region.

She said the aim is to get responses from 60 participants, which would cost TransLink up to $6,000 in donations to three agencies – B.C. Children's Hospital Foundation, the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society and the United Way of the Lower Mainland.

Dermer said survey participants can opt to decline to have the donation made for them.

"Our goal in doing this was to engage with our stakeholders and see if there was an opportunity for us to improve the communications we share with them."

TransLink's independent commissioner is also examining TransLink spending and efficiency as part of deciding whether to approve a 12.5 per cent fare increase next year.