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Surrey city manager enters SPS budget deficit drama

Rob Costanzo supporting Mayor Brenda Locke’s claim the Surrey Police Service is running a deficit budget
Surrey City Manager Rob Costanzo. (Photo: Anna Burns)

Surrey city manager Rob Costanzo is supporting Mayor Brenda Locke’s claim that the Surrey Police Service is running a deficit budget in the wake of a flurry of press releases to the contrary.

“The Surrey Police Service (SPS) has asserted in a recent media release that Mayor Brenda Locke erred in claiming that SPS is running a deficit budget. This assertion is wrong,” Costanzo is quoted in a Jan. 18 press release issued by the City of Surrey.

“SPS’s own media release acknowledges that SPS vastly exceeded its 2023 approved budget,” he stated. “While SPS submitted a proposed 2023 budget of $157.6M to the City, Surrey Council only authorized a budget of $48.8M. SPS does not deny it has far exceeded that limit. By law, SPS is prohibited from spending amounts not approved by Surrey Council.”

Earlier this week the Surrey Police Board and Surrey Police Union took Locke to task for “erroneously” claiming the Surrey Police Service is running a deficit budget over $26 million but Locke stands by that claim.

“They are running a deficit budget, $26 million-plus deficit budget,” she told the Now-Leader on Jan. 17. “Those aren’t my numbers, those are the numbers we get from our accounting department at city hall.”

“I told the in August, stop hiring. They didn’t. They didn’t. They didn’t. Then we told them again in December, no more hires. And they went ahead and hired anyway.”

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Rick Stewart, president of the Surrey Police Union, released a statement on Jan. 16 “following budget misinformation released by Mayor Brenda Locke earlier today.”

“The Surrey Police Union (SPU) is expressing significant concern over the dissemination of inaccurate information by Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke that is being used to sow confusion among residents and undermine the credibility of Surrey Police Service (SPS), the Surrey Police Board, and our dedicated members,” Stewart charged.

Costanzo argues that the SPS doesn’t have authority to “unilaterally spend over its approved budget. That is not how municipal budgeting works.”

The city manager says the SPS “failed to take any steps in a timely way to challenge or revisit Surrey Council’s budget approval” and “was required to do so before spending unapproved funds.”

This latest storm in Surrey’s policing transition saga brewed after Locke said during council’s Jan. 15 meeting she wants to “provide some clarity” on the furor in the media a week prior by Premier David Eby, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and the Surrey Police Union concerning the city’s refusal to pay 10 Surrey Police Service recruits.

She said both the City of Surrey and the provincially-appointed administrator for the Surrey Police Board had flagged SPS budget overruns, and in light of the deficit, the SPS, was told in August and December to stop more hiring. Eby called the city’s decision not to add the 10 recruits to the benefits system and payroll “incredibly frustrating.”

According to Costanzo, Surrey city council is the “only body legally authorized to review and approve proposed budgets, and SPS chose to spend over and above the approved budget without first obtaining Council’s authorization.”

The city manager also rebutted Surrey Police Board administrator Mike Serr’s assertion that the policing transition is legally bound to continue, noting that is “currently before the courts.”

“In the meantime, it would be unfair to taxpayers for the City to condone SPS’s spending and hiring without limitation, approval or legal authority. While it is unfortunate that new officers may have accepted positions without being aware of these circumstances, the City maintains that this is entirely due to SPS’s failure to be transparent with its recruits concerning its budget restraints and legal obligations,” Costanzo asserted.

As for the SPS, its spokesman Ian MacDonald said Jan. 19 the positions “staked out” by Serr, the Surrey Police Board and Farnworth “sheds as much light as is reasonable on the issue.”

Meantime, Coun. Gordon Hepner, of Surrey Connect, said that in his opinion “it doesn’t matter who is going to police the city.

“The problem is the money that is going to be spent on changing the actual direction to the SPS is so vast that I can’t afford it,” he told the Now-Leader. “Like, I can’t afford it myself, and I can’t imagine that somebody in a less financially gifted situation than I am in is going to be able to afford it. It’s all about the money. Just if you want to change the direction, give the city the money, and that’s all there is to it.”

Locke noted that the SPS was “supposed to be on the ground, police of jurisdiction, on April 1, 2021. It never happened. All they are doing is hiring. They haven’t got a plan, they still haven’t got a plan. There’s way more to a police transition like this that just hiring people. That is not going to get us there. They haven’t got a plan, the provincial government hasn’t got a plan, Jessica McDonald (appointed to oversee the transition) doesn’t have a plan, Mike Serr certainly has not got a plan, and so without a plan I don’t know why they’re continuing to hire.

“Surrey has currently got a police of jurisdiction that is the RCMP, it will remain that way, because these guys, the Surrey Police Service, just can’t get it done and they’ve proved that over and over again,” she told the Now-Leader. “We have to be real about this. They’ve had almost five years now, and we’re still no further ahead than we were then. We don’t have a plan.”

Nathan Wong, the SPS’s senior manager of finance, said during a Surrey Police Board meeting Jan. 19 that in September the SPS’s total projected expenditures for 2023 was $75.4 million. “Our financial modeling at the time indicates that 85 per cent of our total costs would be salaries and benefits.” At the end of November, he said, total expenses were at $66 million, roughly 87 per cent of the total projected for the year. “At that point, there was no indication that we were going to be over the $75 million projection.”

At the end of November, Wong noted, the SPS had 384 employees. The City of Surrey’s 2023 policing budget had a total of $330 million, broken into three streams of funding – $116 million for police support services, $165 million for the RCMP contract and $49 million for SPS, he told the board.

“Also within the $330 million was $82 million that the city has expected to pay out for severance. But this $82 million was actually sitting in the police support service budget and not SPS although any severance obligation is actually from the board and not from the city, so any overspending beyond the $49 million technically would be offset by not spending the $82 million in severance,” Wong explained. “And that’s why we don’t exceed that overall budget envelope for $330 million.”

The SPS is still waiting to hear on the 2024 budget that’s been submitted, Serr said, “and we’ll continue to work through that.”

The board’s next meeting is set for March 5.

About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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