Surrey City Hall council chambers. (File photo)

Disappointment, frustration after Surrey council votes to approve budget

Decision means delay of Cloverdale rink, other capital projects, and no new cops to be hired next year

There were feelings of disappointment and frustration in council chambers Monday night after Surrey council voted to approve a controversial budget that means the delay of several civic amenities and no new cops for the city next year.

The Cloverdale Sport & Ice Complex, a community centre and library in Grandview Heights, as well as the acquisition of land for a performing arts centre in City Centre, are to be delayed, among other planned projects throughout the city.

“Disappointed for sure,” said Mike Bola of the Cloverdale Community Association after the vote, adding that he wasn’t surprised.

“I don’t think mayor and council realize they’ve just broken a lot of families’ and children’s hearts who were looking forward to a rink to play in.

“I’m a little bit frustrated right now,” Bola added. “Mayor and council are just looking after themselves, not the city. It’s a really bad start (to their term).”

The community of Cloverdale has spoken up loudly against the capital plan and recently held a rally urging council to reconsider delaying the rink.

Several children attended the Dec. 17 council meeting wearing jerseys, including the Kajla family, who held signs that read “Build Our Rinks,” “Invest In Our Youth” and “Let’s Shoot Pucks Not Guns.”

Despite opposition, Surrey council voted to approve the controversial capital budget in a 5-4 vote during the Monday (Dec. 17) council meeting, with Councillors Steven Pettigrew, Brenda Locke, Jack Hundial and Linda Annis opposed. Council also passed operating and utility budgets, and all three are expected to be formally adopted during a special meeting this Wednesday (Dec. 19).

According to Mayor Doug McCallum, the delays are all in an effort to reduce the city’s accrual of debt. In all, the “postponement” of the projects means a $136-million reduction of required debt, according to a city report.

See also: Surrey mayor defends move to delay Cloverdale rink, other projects

See also: City of Surrey’s debt nowhere near McCallum’s figure of $514M

Locke said “hundreds” have written into city hall in opposition, while Pettigrew said this budget “takes away infrastructure” which is the “exact opposite” of what should be done.

Annis, the lone Surrey First councillor who sits alongside members of McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition, said she’s very concerned about the city’s gang issue and said this was a “prime opportunity” to create more healthy opportunities for children. She also condemned the move not to hire any police officers.

Hundial said there were “approximately 300 emails” submitted to city hall in opposition to the budget.

“The community has spoken,” the former police officer added, also voicing opposition to the five-year budget’s plan not to hire any new officers.

“Public safety is at risk,” Hundial said, later telling reporters he thinks Surrey needs a significantly higher number of officers, regardless of which type of police department it has. “I really question the logic behind not staffing with even an additional 12 members.”

Hundial said as Surrey grows, its police force must grow alongside it.

“You’re increasing that gap between the population to police ratio and we already know in Surrey we’re well behind that,” he noted, also saying he “questions” McCallum’s timeline of having a municipal police force up and running within two years.

“It’s a little ambitious,” said Hundial.

As for the Cloverdale arena being delayed, Hundial said he’s “disappointed” and “pretty upset” and called it a “mistake.”

“There’s a direct parallel between having children occupied in sports and getting them off the street,” he stressed.

Locke tweeted Tuesday morning.

“Rejecting investment in capital projects and public safety is just a false economy and just plain wrong,” she wrote.

Councillor Doug Elford voted in favour of the budget, despite being a self-described “sports guy.”

“I really struggled with this,” Elford said after the meeting, “but at this point in time we have these bold initiatives in place, we have the SkyTrain plan, we have our own police force, and those are two issues I feel we should be concentrating on.

“If you read the budget we have allocated a lot of money for facilities in Surrey, which includes turf fields, rebuilding Strawberry Hill, money to community parks, initiatives that will help enable and engage our youth.”

OUR VIEW: Elford’s support of budget surprising, considering his history in Surrey

Elford stated council has “every intention of developing capital projects that serve the community, we just want to get our debt under control and better manage things.”

“We’re looking at our smart development strategy,” Elford noted, pointing to council’s decision earlier in the Monday night meeting to refer two housing applications in Clayton back to staff, that if approved, would see 333 townhomes and apartments built in that area.

“We put a little bit of a pause” on those applications, Elford said.

“So really, I think our first issue is that children have schools to go to,” he noted, adding that McCallum has promised to re-consider the Cloverdale rink during budget deliberations next spring.

Prior to being elected, Elford was an advocate for more police officers in the city.

Why did he support a budget that will see no Mounties hired next year?

“We’re looking at a transition plan and all this information is coming to us in the spring,” Elford said. “I felt at this point in time we should hold off on hiring the officers until we have a better understanding of where our true needs are going to be, and the true expense of the transition is going to be.”

See also: In split vote, Surrey council gives early nod to draft budget

Cindy Dalglish, who ran for school trustee in the Oct. 20 election and whose children use the existing Cloverdale rink, said the budget approval was a “huge opportunity missed for the future of this council,” as well as the community.

“It’s devastating,” she said.

“It’s politically a terrible mistake for all the council members. What they don’t realize is for McCallum, this will be the last kick at the can as a mayor, sitting in office, whereas this is their beginning,” Dalglish elaborated.

“This sets the tone. They weren’t thinking about the areas McCallum didn’t do well in, which were of course Cloverdale and South Surrey. They’ve just lost more votes that will sway towards Cloverdale and South Surrey. They’re not even thinking politically astutely.”

McCallum has previously said the Cloverdale rink could be considered in the “next cycle” of budget discussions, which he said he “state fairly confidently that we will look at bringing Cloverdale back into the system.”

Different approaches McCallum has suggested are building one rink “fairly quickly,” and once that first rink is up and operating, getting a second one built “a few years behind.” He also floated the idea of a possible partnership with the private sector.

In his defence of the delays, the mayor cited an apparent drop in hockey enrolment, and land stability issues that would increase the cost of the project.

But Cloverdale Minor Hockey Association president Marty Jones responded that any drop in enrolment could be attributed to the lack of ice sheets available. That deficit, he said, has some families getting up at 4 a.m. for ice time, or staying up past midnight. It can “alienate” some children and families from enrolling.

Jones also said that the association only has about half the amount of ice it needs in Surrey, and has been spent upwards of $2 million in ice fees outside of Surrey.

See also: VIDEO: Cloverdale hockey parents, players rally against mayor’s plan to postpone arena

Meantime, former Surrey mayor Bob Bose thinks pausing the capital projects is a mistake and that there are “no frivolous projects” in the previous council’s capital plan.

“I think they’re wrong in going down that direction,” said Bose, despite being a political rival of the former Surrey First-dominated council. “I think it’s very ill-considered.”

Bose said it was especially critical that council acquire new land in City Centre for a performing arts centre.

“They’re critical purchases that you should buy as soon as you can. In particular, land. I think it’s strategically a very bad move not to proceed with acquiring the land in the City Centre, it will only become more expensive. Low interest rates, the value of the asset will grow far faster than the rate of inflation, and I think it’s prudent.

“You don’t have to build the darn thing,” Bose said of the performing arts centre, “and it’s not critical to buy the exact property that you want, but you should establish an equity position… If McCallum is concerned about mounting debt, then he should follow up on one of his key election planks, ‘smart development,’ and don’t open up new areas for development until the city has acquired an equity position in land and has sufficient capital reserves to build facilities; now that would be smart development.”

All of the proposed delays are in an effort to reduce the city’s accrual of debt, according to a report from staff.

“Over the last several years, under the direction of previous Mayor and Councils, the City undertook an aggressive Capital Program, which required the acquisition of debt,” wrote city manager Vincent Lalonde and general manager of finance Kam Grewal in their report.

“External and Internal Debt resulting from previously approved General Capital Programs is $316 million. Furthermore, an additional $198 million would have been required to bring the adopted 2018-2022 General Capital Program to completion, for a total debt requirement of $514 million.”

That report was released after McCallum stated in a release that he was “deeply dismayed and shaken to the core” that the city was “currently” carrying a debt load of $514 million – despite part of that debt not yet having been taken on.

Now, the 2019-2023 capital plan, the report states, incorporates a “pay as you go” approach.

“Accordingly, the proposed 2019-2023 General Capital Program reflects significant reductions to previously approved debt requirements,” Lalonde and Grewal’s report states.

The capital projects which have been proposed for postponement means a “reduction of required debt by $136 million,” it adds.

By postponing these projects, according to the city report, total debt requirements have been reduced to $378 million.

Meantime, the city’s budget also means a tax increase of roughly $128.21 for the average single-family home in Surrey next year.

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