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Mayors' retraction of property tax not legal: Commissioner

TransLink commitment to add express bus routes still in limbo
Express bus service over the Port Mann Bridge is promised when the new tolled span opens this December but the future of the route is still tied up by an impasse over TransLink funding.

Metro Vancouver mayors had no legal leg to stand on in April when they voted to rescind a property tax increase for TransLink that was originally passed last fall as a backup measure to finance transit expansion.

TransLink Commissioner Martin Crilly made that point in a recent Mayors Council meeting, saying he could not allow the perception to remain that mayors could at any time revoke a legally binding supplement they previously approved.

"In my view the resolution that was passed has no legal force," Crilly said in an interview. "I believe TransLink is obliged to deliver the services, projects and programs that were approved in the 2012 Moving Forward plan."

TransLink could not reasonably make plans if its funding sources were not binding and Crilly said he would never have let the mayors vote on the supplement if they could later change their minds and reverse it.

The mayors' April 12 vote to cancel the $30 million property tax led TransLink to freeze several expansion projects, including the planned Highway 1 express bus service over the Port Mann Bridge and a new B-Line express bus down King George Highway in Surrey.

The decisions came after the province refused to grant new funding sources for TransLink.

But Crilly's view that the retraction is not valid does not necessarily mean the tax hike and the bus service upgrades are back on again.

TransLink officials, acting in line with the mayors' intent, have indicated they could draw up a revised supplement that replaces the existing one – eliminating the $23 property tax increase per average home over the next two years as well as projects that can't be funded by other means.

The original supplement approved the two-cent gas tax hike in April and the property tax hike was to kick in only if the province and mayors failed to agree on a new TransLink funding source, which is what happened.

Crilly, however, said he's still not sure how the property tax can legally be unwound.

"There is no reverse gear," he said, noting that funding increases that mayors approve in a supplement become locked into TransLink's base plan (over which mayors have no vote) for future years.

But at the same time, Crilly said he hasn't found any enforcement mechanism in the legislation that could compel TransLink to raise its property tax, as authorized, to deliver the promised services.

One way out of the problem would be if renewed talks between the mayors and the province authorize a new funding source, such as the proposed vehicle levy shot down by the premier this spring.

Barring a breakthrough there, auditors dispatched by the province would have to find large amounts of savings within TransLink, avoiding the need for the tax.

TransLink must craft any new plan it will take to the mayors by Nov. 1.

Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese, who wants the Highway 1 RapidBus to go ahead, said he's willing to wait to see what the auditors uncover this summer.

But in the absence of a financial miracle, he said TransLink must proceed with its original plan, backstopped by the tax hike.

"If there are no sources of funding I feel very strongly that they need to go back to the original supplement, and use the property tax to carry on with the expansion plan, including the RapidBus in Langley."