Surrey property owners are looking at a massive tax increase north of 17.5 per cent at a time when so many people are already buckling under a ponderous cost of living.
Asked by a reporter in Victoria if his “inaction” in arriving at a decision is leading to Surrey’s proposed 2023 tax increase, Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth replied “that’s just nonsense.”
“Surrey is the ones that said they want to go back to the RCMP,” he said. What has to happen, he said, is that there is a proper plan in place to “transition back to the RCMP” that has to be “properly analyzed and scrutinized.”
“This is not just a box-ticking exercise,” Farnworth said. “The bottom line is this – this is not some exercise about oh, here’s our plan, rubber stamp it and check off a few boxes. There are serious repercussions in terms of policing right across the province.”
Mayor Brenda Locke staged a presser on Saturday, Feb. 18 revealing that the biggest chunk of the proposed increase, 9.5 per cent, would be levied “entirely due” to cover costs associated with the policing transition.
“It is because of the stalling of the transition,” she said, including “cost overruns and just the stalling of getting here. You may remember right at the beginning when we asked the Surrey Police Service to stop spending – they chose not to.”
Locke said this proposed budget is based on the premise the Surrey RCMP will continue as the city’s police force. “If we were to go with the Surrey Police Service, that number would be significantly more.”
At press time Farnworth had yet to render his decision whether Surrey should maintain the RCMP as its police department of jurisdiction or continue with the transition to the Surrey Police Service. He said his ministry received the City of Surrey’s response to the provincial government’s concerns about gaps in its initial proposal late Thursday (Feb. 16) and his ministry is currently analyzing that information provided.
Farnworth noted Surrey council’s decision to “go back to” the RCMP are Surrey’s costs.
“I want this resolved as quickly as possible. I fully expect that we will have a resolution before property tax notices go out.”
Meantime, Locke said the proposed budget is “certainly not a budget that I am happy to deliver but it is a budget that we have to deliver.
“We have to make sure that in Surrey we are rectifying the past, that we are rectifying what was a misguided police transition and that our finances are going to be taken care of properly moving forward,” she said.
Locke said the 9.5 per cent increase would be in place over the next three years but she remains “hopeful” some increases can be mitigated. “There was a very rich contract signed by the Surrey Police Service for its members that included not only the richest and most expensive police contract in the country, it also included an 18-month severance package. We are hopeful we will not have to illicit the entire 18-month severance.”
Surrey’s finance committee will hold a public meeting in council chambers on Monday March 6 at 2 p.m. to consider the city’s general operating and capital components of its draft five-year financial plan for 2023 to 2027 inclusive. Documents can be viewed at surrey.ca
A breakdown provided by the city of property tax increases proposed in the 2023 general operating budget include the 9.5 per cent to cover the policing shortfall (roughly $219 for an average single-family household), a seven per cent increase ($161 for an average single-family household) to fund “general inflationary pressures” and hiring 25 police officers, 20 firefighters and 10 bylaws officers this year, and a one per cent roads and traffic levy that will cost $23 for an average single-family household.
Moreover, Surrey city council on Feb. 1 also hiked water, sewer, drainage and solid waste utility rates for 2023.
Fleetwood resident and inveterate council watcher Richard Landale noted these utility hikes alone will increase property taxes by 4.71 per cent for 66 per cent of Surrey’s homeowners.
Locke’s first budget is in the cross-hairs of council rivals from the Surrey First slate and Safe Surrey Coalition, the later which held a majority in council and was itself slammed in 2022 for delivering residential property tax increases of up to 32 per cent for some, and 18 per cent in 2021 with some businesses owners also being hit in 2021 with property taxes from 17 per cent to 86 per cent.
Coun. Linda Annis noted the utility hikes are “over and above” the 17.5 per cent. “So sewer, by way of example, the city’s portion plus Metro’s, that increase combined is 7.2 per cent.” For water, the combined increase is 3.2 per cent, 2.9 per cent for drainage, a 5.6 per cent increase for solid waste and 1.43 per cent for district energy.
Surrey First Councillors Annis and Mike Bose issued a press release saying former mayor Doug McCallum’s “financial mismanagement at city hall has finally caught up with the city’s finances and taxpayers are now facing sticker shock.”
Bose wants the city to consider options other than “imposing a damaging tax increase” now.
“There isn’t a family or business in Surrey that isn’t stretched right now, and the last thing our community needs is city hall making their lives harder,” Bose said. “This financial mess wasn’t created by the residents of Surrey. But like every mistake made by incompetent and short-sighted politicians, taxpayers are the ones that have to clean it up. So, I’m saying to my colleagues at city hall, we should be looking at ways to limit or reduce the pain.”
Coun. Doug Elford noted there’s school taxes to consider as well.
“People are on the verge of losing their homes,” he said.
Elford and fellow Safe Surrey Coalition councillor Mandeep Nagra charge that the proposed tax increase is unnecessary and threatens families and small businesses with financial ruin.
“The cost of living due to high inflation has already created hardship for many families and small businesses, and this tax increase will only make matters worse,” Nagra said. “Mayor Brenda Locke’s tax increase is an attack on small businesses and jobs in Surrey, her 17.5 per cent tax increase for the next three years will cause a mass exodus of businesses moving out of Surrey to neighbouring business friendly municipalities. The mayor needs to wake up and realize that Surrey families and businesses cannot afford her ‘Keep The RCMP Tax’ increase.”
Following Locke’s press conference on Saturday, the Surrey Police Service issued a press release noting that it has “repeatedly disputed the financial numbers used by the city to arrive at inflated costs attributed solely to SPS.”
“We are becoming increasingly concerned by the City of Surrey’s financial numbers that seem to be inflated and mischaracterized simply to call the viability of Surrey Police Service into question,” SPS Chief Constable Norm Lipinski said. “Surrey residents don’t know who to believe and, quite frankly, I don’t blame them. There are many benefits that municipal policing will bring to Surrey, however I certainly understand that cost is a significant factor to residents. SPS would fully support an independent audit involving SPS, the City, and the RCMP in order to ensure taxpayers get the clarity they deserve on the policing transition.”