Delta Mayor Lois Jackson and Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom.

Dissenting mayors fear TransLink property tax hit

Evergreen Line funding vote was far from unanimous

Several mayors now confirm they voted against the TransLink funding plan to raise gas taxes an extra two cents and pursue a vehicle levy with property tax hikes to be used as a last resort.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, Delta’s Lois Jackson and Pitt Meadows’ Don MacLean all say they’re against a scenario that opens the door to a property tax hike being used to fund the Evergreen Line.

They and mayors or alternates from five other cities – Burnaby, White Rock, North Vancouver City, Anmore and Lions Bay – cast dissenting votes Wednesday just before mayors’ council vice-chair Pamela Goldsmith-Jones declared “overwhelming” support for the two-cent plan.

“My position has been consistent against the property tax or any potential use of the property tax,” Brodie said, who stressed he supports the gas tax hike.

Brodie questioned how any mayor can as yet support the package when funding options like the vehicle levy or road pricing are undefined.

“The vehicle levy has been very controversial in the past,” he said. “Who knows whether it is going to be acceptable in the form it is ultimately structured.”

Since the levy wouldn’t be passed in legislation by the province before next spring, mayors will have no firm guarantee of what they get when they vote on a formal TransLink financing supplement this fall.

If the $10-to-$40 per vehicle variable levy doesn’t materialize, a $23 property tax lift takes effect in 2013 instead.

“To put it on the taxpayer with property tax at this point in time is fraught with problems,” Jackson warned. “This is not going to be an easy road.”

The guarantee was necessary to give the province certainty on TransLink’s $400-million Evergreen Line contribution so procurement and construction can begin.

But it leaves mayors making their own leap of faith.

“I trust (Transportation Minister) Blair Lekstrom to the extent he’s the minister now and they form the government now,” MacLean said. “But in a year or two that might not be the case.”

MacLean said he and some other holdout mayors may yet come on side with the package in the weeks ahead if they see more signs of progress in resolving the funding uncertainty.

“The mayors are concerned that if the work doesn’t get done, the fall back is property tax,” Goldsmith-Jones acknowledged, adding there’s concern that the province still thinks there’s room to raise property taxes.

But she said there’s unity in pressing for a transportation-related revenue source like the vehicle levy or road pricing instead.

Brodie said he would have preferred mayors just fund the Evergreen Line and leave out a broader set of transit upgrades designed to appeal broadly across Metro Vancouver.

The slimmed down package could have been paid for with a one-cent gas tax increase and $15 jump in average property taxes, according to information Lekstrom circulated to the mayors.

Mayors at one point suggested a 3.5-cent-a-litre increase in gas tax that could have funded the full set of upgrades at a cost of $70 million a year.

But Lekstrom drew the line at a two-cent lift in the gas tax from the current 15 cents to 17 cents for TransLink.

The mayors choice for the bigger set of improvements meant adding another funding source like the car levy to raise an extra $30 million in addition to the two cents on gas tax that delivers $40 million.

Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, who helped broker the initial understanding with the province as mayors council chair last year, said the additional improvements are important.

“This is not just about the Evergreen Line,” he said. “It also has significant other benefits to the rest of the reigon and especially south of the Fraser.”

A King George Boulevard express bus, a new Langley-White Rock route, RapidBus service on Highway 1, more frequent SeaBus service and generally enhanced transit service are some of the add-ons.

“I would not have supported just the gas tax for the Evergreen Line,” Fassbender said.