06/12/2015 05:55 EDT | Updated 06/13/2016 05:59 EDT

Metro Vancouver Transit Vote's Yes Campaign Spent $5.8 Million

But one critic calls the spending "outrageous" and a "waste of taxpayer money."

Ian YVR/Flickr

VANCOUVER - Proponents of a multibillion-dollar plan to upgrade transit services in Metro Vancouver spent just over $5.8 million promoting a Yes vote during a recent plebiscite, although one critic is calling that figure a whitewash.

The Mayors' Council, representing 21 municipalities, an electoral area and a First Nation, asked voters to approve a separate half-per-cent sales tax for the region — to be charged in addition to the provincial sales tax and GST — to fund $7.5 billion for more buses, roads, light rapid transit and a new bridge.

Their "information and education campaign" was allocated up to $6 million by TransLink, the region's transportation authority, and the details of their spending were released Friday.

"When you're undertaking a really complex project like this that's happening really quickly, sometimes it's a bit of a challenge to make sure that you land at your target at the end," said Mike Buda, executive director of the Mayors' Council Secretariat.

"Obviously, we're pleased we're at or are just under budget, but the key is that we wanted to ensure that, you know, that as many residents as possible were aware of the plan and the referendum and were engaged in the discussion."

The report said the campaign spent $2.3 million on advertising, and $2.1 million on "voter contact," which included door-to-door canvassing, telephone town-hall meetings, telephone-list building and mail canvassing.

Another $539,000 was spent on public and stakeholder events, as well as outreach, while research and planning cost $449,000.

Operations, which included contract staff, a call centre, administrative and legal fees and overhead were $414,000.

Jordan Bateman of the B.C. wing of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said his group spent about $40,000 opposing the tax and called the opposition's spending "outrageous" and a "waste of taxpayer money."

"They're actually whitewashing how much they spent because they'll claim this is all they spent, but this is just the external contractors," he said.

Bateman said the $5.8 million doesn't include in-kind work by staff at TransLink or any of municipalities, and when all the bills are tallied, the cost could be $8 million or more.

Buda said cities had approved in-kind support, and some councils would soon see those reports.

Prof. Doug McArthur of Simon Fraser University's school of public policy said the Mayors' Council spent a "relatively small amount" compared to similar votes in the United States.

He said a similar campaign at the provincial level, involving media, communications' tools, research and canvassing, could cost $10 million.

"So considering that this was throughout ... the metro area, I think it's comparable to certain other campaigns that have been undertaken," he said.

Yet, McArthur said he found it interesting the No side spent so little and still got their message out.

"They used the media very effectively to get their message out by covering what they said and what they were standing for and, you know, did a very good job in that respect."

Voting ended May 29, and Elections BC is expected to make the results public by the end of this month.

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