SURREY — For the second year in a row, Surrey First is considering tax increases that were not mentioned along the campaign trail in the 2014 civic election to pay for its policing promises.
Crime was a hot button issue during the hard-fought battle for the mayor’s chair, and Surrey First’s $21-million public safety plan included a promise to hire 117 new officers.
That commitment came with a hefty price tag.
During the campaign, Mayor Linda Hepner told the Now the city would use growth revenues, dividends from the Surrey City Development Corporation, secondary suite fees and existing city taxes to deliver its promises.
There was no mention of tax hikes.
But weeks after being sworn into office, city council introduced a controversial new flat tax – a $100 cultural and recreation levy – to pay for capital projects, such as the Grandview and Guildford aquatic centres, as it grappled with the $3.9-million bill for 100 new officers in 2015.
In 2016, taxpayers can expect a “modest increase” to the cultural levy, said Coun. Tom Gill, chair of Surrey’s finance committee, likely in the range of $10 to $15.
Property taxes will be going up this year as well, Gill noted. In the current five-year budget, the city plans to raise taxes by 2.9 per cent a year, but Gill said policing costs alone will eat up this year’s proposed increase, so it’s likely to be higher than planned.
“One really needs to understand, that when looking at the annualization of 100 officers, plus the existing officers, plus looking at a compliment of roughly 16 new officers for the coming year (in 2016), that cost pressure alone is hovering around that three per cent rate,” noted Gill.
A one per cent road and traffic levy, introduced in 2007, is expected to continue as well.
Like last year, Gill emphasized the city’s commitment to building “high-caliber” amenities in the city. He says he hopes to find savings on the operating side in order to not sacrifice any commitments in its “robust” capital program.
“That’s the rationale behind both why the operating and the capital (budgets) have been delayed to some degree,” said Gill.
“About 15, 20 years ago, we at the city at that time under different management and different governance, there was no tax increases…. We are playing catch up.”
He noted the city’s capital plan includes “world-class” facilities that not only benefit the community but are also part of the city’s sports tourism plan.
Asked about SCDC dividends (Hepner said during the campaign that those funds would go toward policing costs), Gill said he wants that revenue to go to the capital plan.
“I’m somewhat hesitant in using SCDC’s dividends in normal operations,” said Gill.
“That’s something I’m sticking to my guns on.”
So far, all that’s been approved by the finance committee are increases to utilities to the tune of $27.50 per year for the average single-family home. That includes water, sewage and drainage. The city is still mulling over capital and operating budgets.
As chair of the city’s finance committee for the past nine years, Gill said this may be the first year the city doesn’t consider the budget in its entirety before the year is out. He anticipates the remainder of the financial plan will come before council early next year.
“Where is all that money going?”
Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation said people in Surrey must wonder where all the extra tax revenue from the city’s unprecedented growth is going.
“Part of the reason we need more cops in Surrey is because we have more people moving there,” Bateman said. “You would think they would be paying into that system to contribute. Where is all that money going?”
He also slammed Gill’s mention of an increase to the recently introduced cultural and recreation levy.
“There was no mention of that last year,” said Bateman, “and when people look around at city-owned facilities, the most extravagant one with the most money sunk into it is city hall. That’s hardly beneficial on the recreation side.”
He also criticized Surrey’s recent hiring of a public safety director, who will have an annual salary of $170,000, calling the position, “just another layer of bureaucracy.”
Bateman asked, “Why do we have a police chief and a bylaw manager, now we add another layer? This is the kind of thing that drives people crazy. Put boots on the street. Lots of people know what needs to be done in Surrey. It’s just a matter of doing it. More senior staff should be the last thing Surrey is pursuing.”
All told, for 2015, the average tax bill for a single-family household, assessed at $648,000, jumped from $1,593 to $1,755 totalling a $162 hike.