Billionaire B.C. businessman Jim Pattison gave transit referendum Yes forces a lift Thursday by agreeing to chair a committee to oversee the flow of money if voters approve the proposed sales tax increase.
The move aims to bolster the assurances of the Metro Vancouver mayors’ council that money from the 0.5 per cent Congestion Improvement Tax will go to the projects set out in the accompanying plan, and not be misspent by TransLink as opponents predict.
Pattison told Black Press he intends to vote Yes in the referendum.
“For me, I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said of his personal position in the referendum and he rejected suggestions he has become part of the Yes campaign.
“I have not joined any campaign,” Pattison said. “I have been asked to get involved to oversee – if there is a Yes vote – that the funds go to where it’s supposed to go.”
He was approached “in the last few days” by Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who told reporters that mayors had been planning an oversight committee for a number of months.
Pattison won’t be paid for his role – which Robertson described as independent – as chair of the public accountability committee for the transit and transportation plan.
He said he agreed to take on the role much as he did when he was tapped 30 years ago to head Expo 86 – the mayor phoned and asked him to do it.
“It’s a community deal. I live here and the province and city have been very good to me. So I’m happy to do it if I can be helpful.”
Other members of the committee are to be recruited by Pattison and approved by the mayors’ council.
They’re to work with the mayors, the province and TransLink to define a process for financial review and oversight of the estimated $250 million a year that the sales tax hike would raise within Metro to fund a variety of transit and transportation projects over the next 10 years.
The committee will report directly to the public each year on whether the funds raised are spent on the defined project and in the priority set out in the plan.
Robertson predicted the independent accountability committee under Pattison’s leadership will provide “more confidence and certainty” for voters concerned about where the money would go.
Mayors had previously pledged annual audits and a separate accounting system would ensure the money wouldn’t become part of general revenue for TransLink.
Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said the additional step of naming a blue ribbon panel was taken because many voters are “still skeptical” and “the word audit makes everybody’s eyes glaze over.”
No TransLink Tax campaign head Jordan Bateman predicts any audits will succeed only in uncovering waste after the fact, not preventing it, and said Pattison’s committee will have no real power to force changes or penalize TransLink if funds are poorly spent.
He called it a desperate “Hail Mary pass” by mayors that won’t work because the public doesn’t trust TransLink.
Pattison is chairman and CEO of the Jim Pattison Group, Canada’s second largest private company with 39,000 employees. Forbes has estimated his net worth at $7.3 billion.
Bateman said he had “the utmost respect” for Pattison but wasn’t surprised the businessman is voting Yes.
“We expect most of the big business types to vote Yes,” Bateman said. “He’s in a position where he can afford to pay more taxes than the average British Columbian.”