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Surrey residents criticize ‘smoke-and-mirrors’ property tax hike

Larger-than-advertised increases prove need for independent auditor general: Annis
Former Surrey councillor and finance committee chair Tom Gill charges that an increase to the capital parcel tax amounts to a “hidden tax” above and beyond the 2.9 per cent increase claimed by Mayor Doug McCallum. ( photo)

Residential tax increases far greater than the 2.9 per cent promised by Mayor Doug McCallum are leading to a renewed call for an independent auditor general for Surrey.

Surrey First Coun. Linda Annis, whose last attempt to establish such oversight was shot down in a council vote in early May, said current residential tax bills showing an eight to 14 per cent increase over last year indicate that it’s necessary.

“I’m going to bring it up again,” she said, adding she was quite shocked that other councillors were resistant to an examination of the efficiency of Surrey financial procedures that would be entirely independent and non-partisan.

“It’s not a political thing – it would be good for the city and good for the taxpayers,” she said.

At the very least, she said, it might answer questions residents have about why the actual bottom line on their taxes is so much higher than McCallum has maintained.

READ ALSO: Huge increases in property taxes gobsmack Surrey business owners

Fleetwood resident Barry Haithwaite, with a tax bill approximately 17.9 per cent higher than 2020 for his single-family cul-de-sac home, is on the upper end of the the increases.

But he said he has realized that he is far from alone.

“I’ve talked with three different neighbours and their taxes are all about $500 above last year’s,” he said. “We’re all in and around the 18 per cent mark.”

He said that MacCallum’s claim that, for a third year in a row, property taxes have been held to 2.9 per cent is “very disingenuous.”

“That’s 2.9 per cent of what?” he said, noting that the figure does not apply to the two biggest increases in his bill – an extra $200 on the capital parcel tax, plus some $107 collected for other authorities (including school taxes).

“It’s smoke and mirrors,” Haithwaite added.

“I understand it’s Doug McCallum trying to make his reign look better than it is. It’s politics as they are today, a Trump-like misdirection away from the facts.”

READ ALSO: Surrey mayor ‘could not be any prouder’ as budget 2021 passes on 5-4 vote

Inder Nijjar, senior manager for Surrey-based Property Tax Services, which advises both residents and businesses, said that taxes collected for other authorities have gone up this year partly because they include provincial school taxes that were suspended last year to offset the effects of COVID-19.

But the most significant other increases, he said, have been a result of higher assessments “due to a strong townhouse/condo market and fixed tax fee increases such as the capital parcel tax.”

“What we have seen is that lower-valued properties have been hit with the highest percentage increases year over year,” he noted.

Annis said residents have received little justification for the increase in the capital parcel tax from McCallum and the rest of the Safe Surrey Coalition councillors.

“It’s been around for years and it’s intended to pay for infrastructure for the city. But the city is also borrowing $150 million to build infrastructure. It’s borrowing the money, but giving the residents all this tax increase.”

Former Surrey First councillor and former mayoral candidate Tom Gill, a CGA who also served as the city’s finance committee chair, said he was originally responsible for creating the parcel tax and setting the rate at $100.

“We were playing catch-up,” he said, adding that the tax was created to pay to improve city assets after a 10-year period, under the former leadership of McCallum, in which they had been neglected.

The current increase to the capital parcel tax amounts to a “hidden tax,” he charged. “They’re just playing a shell game – it’s disheartening to see that.”

Gill is highly critical of McCallum’s current term, particularly in light of the creation of a city police force for which the full costs, he said, are still unknown.

At the same time, Gill said, McCallum has not wanted to address road and traffic safety.

“One of his strategies has been disposing of city assets,” Gill said, noting this included dissolving the Surrey Development Corporation.

“He’s exhausted assets we tried so hard to create…that were going to allow us to be more self-sustaining in future,” he added.

“In the short-term, they’ve been able to reduce expenses…but if they continue as they are, there will be a huge and significant impact to the city,” he warned.

McCallum has not responded to a request for comment.

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