Surrey council sitting as the finance committee rejected the city’s proposed budget for 2023 after taking it on the chin from angry Surrey residents at a public hearing at city hall on Monday afternoon.
A revised budget will be before council for consideration on April 3, after the spring break, with city staff instructed to limit the property tax increase to no more than 12.5 per cent.
“It is very challenging times. We were left, frankly, with a fiscal mess,” Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke said, forecasting budget pain “way worse in perpetuity.”
Locke said at the outset of the meeting that with help from a $89.9 million provincial government grant, a potential 9.5 per cent property tax increase specifically tied to the city’s policing transition would be lowered to 4.5 per cent.
That would then lower a proposed 17.5 per cent tax increase for 2023 to 12.5 per cent.
Also factoring in a three-per-cent utility rates hike, a 20.5 per cent increase would become 15.5 per cent. The $89.9 million is Surrey’s slice of the $1 billion Growing Communities Fund announced by Premier David Eby three weeks ago.
“The proposed budget will be updated with the new infrastructure funds from the province. In this case, revisiting the budget to factor in the new monies will result in a decrease from the property tax rate currently proposed,” Locke said.
“While we await for the final numbers from finance I am confident that policing surcharge will be decreased from the 9.5 to 4.5 per cent. That’s a five-per-cent cut from what was currently proposed. And just to be clear, this covers only the cost of unwinding two police forces to have only the RCMP as the police of jurisdiction in Surrey and does not cover the extra cost that will occur if we continue ahead with this costly transition.”
On Feb. 24 Locke told the Now-Leader Surrey’s share of the provincial community infrastructure grant could “absolutely” be used to offset a portion of the property tax increase bearing down on Surrey taxpayers this year.
During Eby’s presser on the grant on Feb. 10, he said the money is intended to help local municipalities “improve roads, build more arenas and water facilities, and improve recreation options for families.”
Eby subsequently advised that civic governments are on their own when it comes to dealing with property tax hikes.
Still, Coun. Gordon Hepner remarked on Monday, “I think that on Friday the province announced some funding for us where we’re going be able to ease some of the fiscal pain that some of the residents are going to face.”
After hearing from outraged residents, council voted to have city staff incorporate the $89.9 million from the Growing Communities Fund into the 2023-2027 financial plan and limit this year’s tax increase to no more than 12.5 per cent.
The plan is to also use the grant money to build a third sheet of ice in Cloverdale, to reduce the 2023 tax increase for “policing shortfall” from 9.5 per cent to 4.5 per cent, to maintain the seven per cent general property tax increase for “inflationary pressures” and new resources, and to maintain the one per cent hike in the roads levy.
This would mean the 2023 total general tax increase would be no more than seven, 4.5 and one to a total of 12.5 per cent.
Coun. Doug Elford was the lone council member to vote in opposition. Coun. Mandeep Nagra was not at the meeting.
“I know this is not very popular, but I would question why we’re building that third sheet of ice in Cloverdale while the old existing building has got another 10 to 15 years left in it, so I mean that would result in a substantial tax decrease as well as it wouldn’t be 12.5, it should be a lot less, so that’s why I’m not in favour of this motion.”
The committee heard from angry speaker after angry speaker after Surrey general manager of finance Kam Grewal presented the proposed 2023 Five-Year (2023-2027) general operating and capital financial plan.
Grewal said it’s costing Surrey taxpayers $8 million per month to carry both the Surrey RCMP and the Surrey Police Service.
Nineteen people were on the speaking list and 20 others registered opposition to the budget but elected not to speak. Speakers were granted three minutes apiece to address the committee.
“The proposed budget is extremely high, and it is unethical and is just plain wrong,” speaker Joe Kalwajtys said.
“I call on council to go back to the drawing board and do a proper budget more in line with the rest of the Lower Mainland, or if not, then resign, step aside and let responsible people manage the business of the city of Surrey.”
Former Safe Surrey Coalition councillor Laurie Guerra, who was defeated in the last election, slammed the proposed budget as “completely irresponsible” and asked council why it would not expect Surrey residents to be “outraged.”
“I implore you to do the right thing and go back to the drawing board and rethink this,” she said.
Whalley resident Marilyn Smith suggested council could halt the 84 Avenue connection between 140 Street and King George Boulevard to “save money.”
Jim Geb, a senior citizen and longtime Surrey resident, said over the last four years his property taxes have increased to $4,500 from $2,700.
“Cut the bloated budgets,” he demanded.
Panorama Ridge resident Eric Browski called on council to “stop going after” homeowners. Surrey, he said, is becoming “an area for the rich and those who scam the system.”
A Fraser Heights resident held up a cardboard sign that read “Not steal from us.” He told council that its members should cut their own salaries instead.
“We’re bleeding money,” Hazelmere resident Sarah Rush told council.
“I know that the property tax hike is steep however I know that it is to pay for irresponsible decisions made by the previous council,” she added.
“Cut it out, stop it,” another resident said. “We don’t have the money. I don’t know what’s wrong with you people. You can’t pay 17 per cent, you can’t get blood out of a stone.”
Said another speaker, “Honestly, you are pushing people over the edge.”
A 77-year-old woman asked the politicians, “How do you people expect us to live? I just want to know. Do you ever consider people on a fixed income? Shame on you.”
“How can you sleep at night?” another woman asked council. “Please control your expenses, I beg you.”
After the verbal drubbing, Coun. Harry Bains said he wouldn’t support the budget as proposed, deeming it “too large of a financial burden during these difficult financial times.”
“I’m disappointed in the mismanagement of taxpayer dollars over the last four years,” he said, taking a poke at the previous council.
He asked Grewal how much would be required in the way of a property tax increase for the average homeowner if the Surrey Police Service is the city’s police of jurisdiction.
Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has yet to render a decision on whether Surrey should maintain the RCMP as its police of jurisdiction or forge ahead with the transition from the RCMP to the Surrey Police Service.
“The issue becomes in year two, 2024, and year three, 2025, there would need to be a significant tax increase well beyond 20 per cent,” Grewal replied, “for 2024 in order to make up that funding shortfall. So a very significant amount above and beyond the nine and a half.”
Bains then asked the finance manager how long, after 2024, would the city project an increased property tax rate “for the SPS portion.”
Grewal replied “that they would last four years or longer.”
Even in a situation where there is no policing transition cost, Grewal added, “even under that scenario, our analysis indicates a difference of $31.9 million per year, every year, in perpetuity.”
Coun. Rob Stutt revisited one public hearing speaker’s comment that council is pushing people to the brink of financial ruin.
“That’s incorrect,” he said. “That was done by the previous council. A common thing that I’ve been hearing is that our problems that we’re facing today are a result of the council of the past.”
Hepner echoed that.
“This budget is from the previous administration,” he said, “and it’s left a mess in policing, it’s left a mess in roads, it’s left a mess in, you know, projects being deferred. In 2018, the previous council, when they took the reins the amount of money the city owed was $115 million. When we took the reins, it’s now $358 million. That’s the money we owe. That’s incredible.”
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