Surrey working to pay for pricey election promise

Vow to hire 100 more police officers comes with a price tag of $15 million

Taxes are going up

The cost of a big-ticket municipal election promise for policing in Surrey is proving to be a crushing financial burden, as the city wrangles with how to balance next year’s budget.

In the 2014 election campaign, Surrey First – which won every seat on council – promised 100 more police officers this year.

The city budgeted for them to arrive last month, and 2016 will be the first full year in which taxpayers will have to pay for the $15-million pledge.

Normally, the municipal budget – in its entirety – is calculated each November or early December.

This year, because of delays in home valuation from the B.C. Assessment Authority and the burden of the added policing costs, Surrey has postponed consideration of the operating budget until Feb. 15, 2016.

The Leader has learned property taxes will be increasing, but at this point, no one knows by how much.

On Nov. 23, Surrey’s finance committee will consider utility costs and other fees.

Utilities, including garbage, sewer and water, will increase by $27.50 per home – half of which is a result of Metro Vancouver increases.

The new $100 recreation and culture levy announced weeks after the election in 2014 will remain in place next year, and the road levy will increase by one per cent as forecast in the city’s last five-year plan.

The road levy was introduced in 2007 as a temporary five-year measure. The city now plans to continue it for at least another six to 12 years. It amounts to $110 for the average home in Surrey valued at $671,000.

The city will also be looking at a 3.9-per-cent increase in fees and charges, such as business licences and recreation centre fees.

In Surrey’s last five-year financial plan, council aimed to increase property taxes by 2.9 per cent this year.

However, the mass hiring of police consumed that and then some, to the tune of just over three per cent, said Coun. Tom Gill, who chairs the city’s finance committee.

“That’s probably the biggest item in terms of how we should move forward with the balance of the plan,” Gill told The Leader.

Gill added it is not only the cost of obtaining new officers, but also increases in salaries, benefits and “other cost pressures” – such as accommodating the new police with office space – that is presenting a challenge this year.

The RCMP received about a 2.5-per-cent increase in pay this year, he said, and an increase in benefits that were retroactive.

“That was not known a year ago,” he said.

Gill said the city is looking at hiring even more police officers next year, but wouldn’t say how many.

“I’m not going to go out on a limb on that right now. We’re having some discussions back and forth on that,” Gill said.

During the 2014 election, Surrey First, of which Gill is a member, ran on a promise of delivering 100 Mounties this year, and another 17 in 2016. Those 17 officers would cost the city just over $2.5 million.

Gill said the city will be delivering that number of officers “plus or minus,” depending on budgetary concerns.

More firefighters and bylaw officers are also needed, Gill said, but specific numbers will be determined when the city calculates how to pay for the police already acquired.

“Given that big cost pressure of police, we’re just trying to figure out how the rest of that falls in place, given that issue,” Gill said.

Gill has been finance chair for nine years and he said the current budget is by far his toughest one to date.

“There’s no question this has been the most difficult budgeting year in my career at the city, in the sense of balancing the resources that are going to be required to offset the expectations of the community,” Gill said.

Property taxes will be going up, he acknowledged.

“That being said, I’m trying to keep it in line,” he said, adding the policing costs are far and away the biggest factor.

“That’s the underlying issue in what’s going to be dictating the terms of all the other objectives and goals we’re going to be trying to meet.”

During the 2014 election, The Leader asked each party repeatedly how they were going to pay for their promises.

Gill said at the time there were several areas where the city would find portions for the required funding, including $5 million from new development, $7 million from a planned 2.9-per-cent property tax increase, $13 million from secondary suite fees and $4.5 million from Surrey City Development Corporation dividends.

Gill said the city would likely take small portions of each to fund the $15-million plan for the 100 officers.

In all, taxes and levies increased a total of $162 for the average home worth $648,000 in 2015.