Surrey residents packed a finance committee meeting Monday afternoon (December 2) at city hall to provide input into next year’s budget that provides for austerity-like measures outside of a costly police transition. The tension was palpable.
Residents will be looking at a 2.9 % property tax increase and a two-year $45 million plan to transition from the RCMP to the envisioned Surrey Police Department. With no tax increase significantly above the 2019 inflation rate, the police transition money effectively comes from the cancellation of two, new previously planned ice arenas in Cloverdale that would have cost $45 million. The city will also put a hiring freeze on city hall, community centres, the fire department and the local RCMP detachment.
Residents, who are the second least taxed among 17 Metro Vancouver municipalities, expressed frustration. Numerous calls from Mayor Doug McCallum not to applaud the unsatisfied two-dozen or so speakers were ignored by the boisterous crowd.
In the end, McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition approved the recommendations of the operating, capital and grants budgets in a 5-4 vote.
Most residents suggested the police transition funds could be better spent elsewhere — such as for new pools, community centres and arenas in the fastest growing city (by population) in the province. There was also considerable doubt whether a municipal force would even provide for more safety and a lower crime rate (which continues to decline despite highly publicized gang-associated murders). There was also concern that costs of the police transition were not precisely known.
“We do not need a new police force; we need more resources,” said speaker Darlene Bennett, whose husband, a local minor hockey coach, was murdered in his driveway last year in a case of mistaken identity.
Surrey Firefighters Association president Mark McRae told council the hiring freeze “will impact response times” and “further delaying the addition of resources is going to exacerbate an already existing problem.”
Tony Miles, treasurer for the Cloverdale Minor Hockey Association, said parents are paying premium prices at private rinks outside of the municipality. He said he’d personally be willing to pay more taxes earmarked for infrastructure spending.
“I may not be in positive territory here, but I would. The financial plan has not addressed what it needs to do.”
One other resident noted the lack of spending demanded by city hall on its citizens and he added it would take 10-15 years of increases above those of Vancouver to catch up to the region — by his calculation.
A 2018 Fraser Institute analysis of municipal taxation shows that in 2016 Surrey spent $1,057 per person; the lowest of 17 Lower Mainland municipalities whereas the average across the region was $1,549.
McRae noted Surrey has about one firefighter for every 1,500 residents whereas the regional benchmark is about one for every 1,000.
Surrey also has the least amount of net financial assets per person ($107 in 2016, whereas the average was $1,224).
Last year the city brought its debt down from $267 million to $229 million, after McCallum expressed concern about it (it’s among the highest debts among B.C. municipalities). The city also has zero funds on hand for financing projects, according to its latest annual financial report.
McCallum previously stated last week to media he is not willing to budge on raising taxes higher than inflation (although this budget does so, slightly). As such, to pay for the police transition it appears new capital projects will bite the dust for at least the next two years.
According to city staff a 1 % increase to residential property taxes would raise just $3.6 million.
Linda Annis , one of four dissenting councillors, said the city is starved of new infrastructure. She said she’d be willing to increase taxes to specifically fund new community projects. She also opposes the $45 million for the new police force.
Couns. Steven Pettigrew and Brenda Locke have both expressed a willingness to raise taxes earmarked specifically at capital projects.
“You’ve sharpened your pencils and tightened your belts,” said Pettigrew to finance staff, however “this budget is a disaster.”
“This is an absolute gutting of our city,” said Locke. “There will be an unfortunate reality check on where additional monies will have to come from.
“I keep thinking of a 10 year-old today. If we don’t start building facilities today they will never see the reality of them,” said Locke, who wants to reinstate a 1 % road tax levy.
It was not understood at the committee what councillors Doug Elford, Allison Patton, Mandeep Nagra and Laurie Guerra, as well as McCallum, thought of the budget, as none spoke or asked questions to staff. The budget recommendations passed 5-4 and were sent to a regular council meeting later in the evening.
Annis questioned finance manager Kam Grewal about the estimated costs of transition, asking when she could view a detailed financial analysis of it.
Grewal said the budget is based on “the best available information,” which is the estimates found in the Police Transition Report, issued last July by the City of Surrey in conjunction with the Vancouver Police Department as consultants.
The transition is now in the hands of the provincial government, via a joint transition team (city and province) headed by provincial appointee Wally Oppal, former attorney general.
Meanwhile, Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman expressed concern about a 5.5 % increase to business taxes. According to the aforementioned Fraser Institute report, Surrey businesses account for 31.5 % of the total property tax share in the city, whereas the regional average is 40.3 % (Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond are in the 45 % -50 % range).
Huberman said the police transition should be cancelled.
Annis said higher development cost charges earmarked for general revenue are also problematic.