Widow Darlene Bennett delivers a powerful delegation to Surrey council during a finance committee budget meeting on Dec. 2, saying the planned policing transition is a waste of taxpayer money and ‘quite frankly a slap in the face to the victims left behind.’ (Photo: Amy Reid)

Surrey budget moves forward despite strong opposition at public hearing

City council will now vote on the budget during tonight’s meeting

It’s not official just yet but Mayor Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey team have shown their support for a controversial draft budget that doesn’t allocate any money for hiring any new firefighters or police officers next year.

The Safe Surrey team, which holds a majority on council, voted in favour of the budget during a Finance Committee meeting on Monday (Dec. 2), following a public hearing that saw the public turn out in force to voice fierce opposition to the plan.

Independent Steven Pettigrew voted against the budget and described it as a “disaster.”

“It’s going to hurt the people of our city. It’s going to hurt us now and for decades to come. I don’t want anything to do with it,” he said after expressing his opposition to the hiring freezes on first responders that also partially extends to staff at city hall.

“Right now we’re short about 24 officers. By the time this budget is finished we’ll be short 72 officers. We’re short on firefighters. My family is at risk and so is your family. This budget puts our families at risk.”

Pettigrew also criticized the plan for lack of investment into civic amenities, as well as arts and culture.

He called on McCallum and his Safe Surrey councillors to speak publicly about why they’re supporting the plan, but they did not speak before the meeting adjourned.

While the plan has been supported at the committee level, council isn’t set to vote on the budget officially until the 7 p.m. public hearing scheduled later tonight.

During the committee meeting, dozens of people spoke to the financial plan and most comments centred on the hiring freeze on RCMP and firefighters, as well as much opposition to the policing transition altogether.

From longtime residents to business leaders to the head of Surrey Fire Fighters Association and even a widow whose husband was murdered in 2018, criticism of the proposed budget was fierce.

Several residents urged council to reconsider the plan, some questioning whether Surrey would ultimately be safer with a municipal force.

Mark McRae, president of Surrey Fire Fighters Association made a powerful presentation, beginning with 30 seconds of silence.

“You thought that 30 seconds of silence was long. Seconds matter. Seconds matter,” he told council. “It’s important to share that because as we move forward with this budget the way it’s currently drafted, the time it takes for fire to respond will be negatively impacted. In fact, each year as we add more commercial and residential properties, making our neighbourhoods more populated with infrastructure and people, our calls for service are going to increase…. but our resources remain the same. In a world where every second matters this is not something we should dismiss. These factors are important to public safety.”

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(Surrey Fire Fighters Association Mark McRae during the finance committee hearing on the proposed budget. Photo: Amy Reid)

He noted that over the last 10 years, more than 100,000 residents have moved into Surrey, yet over that time, “we’ve only added two firefighters on duty to protect them 24 hours a day.”

Delaying resources is going to “place our department further behind,” said McRae.

He noted there are 364 firefighters here in Surrey, which is less than half of Vancouver.

“We work hard at being the best in the country. We know we do more with less year after year.”

One of many speakers to elicit applause was widow Darlene Bennett, who spoke to council in support of the Surrey RCMP, fighting back tears.

Her husband and hockey dad Paul Bennett was shot in their driveway in Clayton Heights in 2018.

“The violence in this city isn’t a policing problem. It’s much bigger social problem. Until that is addressed, this whole plan is a waste of taxpayer money and quite frankly a slap in the face to the victims left behind. The RCMP are doing the best job possible with the resources afforded to them by this government.”

Bennett noted that the city’s crime severity index is down.

“I support our Surrey RCMP and firefighters 100 per cent. Be thankful for what you have, hold it close, because life is that precious. I just wish you could see that.”

Ramona Kaptyn, president of the Surrey chapter of Canadian Association of Retired Persons, said members of the group have indicated they “feel less safe in surrey because there’s no new RCMP or firefighters being hired. They are afraid to go out after dark which comes very early in winter, leading to isolationism for many seniors which is a huge health risk.”

Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman urged council to cancel the policing transition altogether, and to invest more in arts, among other things.

Jasmine Garcha spoke to council on how this budget will impact future generations.

A former youth worker, Garcha said she left that line of work after becoming “burnt out” due to lack of resources.

Garcha told council the public should have a say on the plan – the policing transition specifically.

“And no, an election is not a referendum,” she said.

Garcha said she prays no lives are lost due to the under resourcing of first responders. She also told McCallum a canal is the last thing this city needs.

“Think about our youth and the impact the decisions these will have on them,” she urged.

A man named Gerald Henri told Mayor Doug McCallum he is “stubborn” and that the public doesn’t share his vision.

President of Surrey Environmental Partners Deb Jack asked city council why the line item for Surrey’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy has “disappeared” from the city’s budget.

Former Surrey councillor Mike Starchuk echoed the concern about the environment, noting the BCS line item “went from $4 million, to $250,000 to zero.” He criticized council for this cut after unanimously declaring a climate emergency in recent weeks.

SEE ALSO: New Surrey Police force ‘swallowing up’ city’s funds, Annis says

The draft financial capital plan budgets $45.2 million for Surrey’s new police department transition. The five-year plan allocates $84.4 million in “additional” operating costs on top of the expected one-time transition costs. With contingencies added, that equates to $129.6 million over the five-year period.

For the second year in a row, there are no new police officers on the city’s books for 2020. And no new firefighters are to be hired next year, if the budget is approved, “due to the priority in establishing” of a new police department and to keep “tax increases to a minimum.”

Further, the plan calls for a hiring freeze at city hall outside of staff required for new facilities to open, such as the Clayton Heights Community Centre.

While the five-year plan allocates more than $133 million to capital projects, there is no mention of several postponed projects postponed in the 2018 budget cycle, including a community centre and library in Grandview Heights, as well as the acquisition of land for a performing arts centre in City Centre.

The proposed five-year plan does partially revive one of the projects postponed in 2018 – a Cloverdale Sport and Ice Complex. It was arguably the most controversial element of the 2019 budget. The draft budget also allocates $10 million to the “postponed” Cloverdale Sport & Ice Complex in 2024, the final year of the draft five-year plan, and $50,000 for that project in 2020. The $50,000 would be used to “conceptualize additional ice in the Cloverdale community to meet the community’s needs,” staff indicate in their report.

Meantime, the draft plan calls for 2.9 per cent residential property tax increase. This would equate to a $59 increase for the average single-family dwelling, according to budget documents, an increase that staff indicates would “predominately be used to offset increased public safety resourcing and expenditures.”

In addition to the property tax increases, utilities are set to rise also including water (by $19.16 for the average single-family dwelling on a metre), sewer ($15.84), drainage ($2) and solid waste ($8). Together, with the proposed property tax increase, those equate to an increase of roughly $104 for the average single-family home in Surrey.

For the second year in a row, there is no proposed increase to the Roads and Traffic Levy.

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