A view of Surrey’s city hall. (File photo)

Surrey takes over SCDC as city struggles under $42M deficit

‘It’s very sad to see, for sure,’ former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts says

Surrey has dissolved the Surrey City Development Corporation and taken over all of its assets as the city struggles under the weight of a $42-million deficit brought on by the pandemic.

“As we work with the best interests of our citizens in mind, Surrey City Council will continue to sharpen its focus on core city mandated services and how best to streamline them,” Mayor Doug McCallum stated in a press release Tuesday.

McCallum said the “time is right to bring these activities back under the purview of the City and have the work done in house.”

The city announced the move in a statement issued after council considered a corporate report the night before, revealing that the opening of recreational amenities will be impacted and general managers at city hall must find a “minimum” of $8 million within their departments to help mitigate the budget shortfall.

“These savings will be driven by each General Manager and will be prioritized to have minimal public impact and no significant service level reductions,” the corporate report reads.

The city’s move to take over the SCDC, which was formed in 2007 under then-mayor Dianne Watt’s watch, was immediately slammed by Watts and others.

“The reason why they shut down SCDC and put the assets under the city is so they can sell the assets, right,” Watts told the Now-Leader. “That’s the bottom line. It’ll be curious to see who’s going to be benefiting from the land sales.

“The reason that it was initially set up is because they’re public assets, and to capitalize on public assets and have it go to arts and culture, recreation, social programs. There was a revenue stream that came into the city to keep taxes down, and to support capital projects.”

Watts said at one point, a $10- million per year revenue stream was coming into the city.

“McCallum and his councillors, they need money for the police transition and so they’re going to sell off all the assets, not move forward with capital projects and keep the pools, libraries and public facilities shut to save money. It’s all to pay for the police transition, with parks, gyms, indoor pools and libraries, right.

“It’s very sad to see, for sure,” Watts said.

McCallum’s immediate predecessor, former Surrey mayor Linda Hepner, said it’s hard to witness the hard work under previous councils being “quickly eroded.”

She said SCDC was set up so Surrey residents could manage their own land assets, “and so in many cases it allowed us from an economic development perspective to make deals directly with end-users so that you didn’t get speculators owning land, keeping it forever.”

“That allowed us to keep the taxes relatively stable for residents,” Hepner said. “I’m sure those funds will be utilized in the singular transition plan.”

Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trades, said the SCDC takeover “brings into question what Surrey’s future economic strategy will be.”

Councillor Linda Annis said Surrey taxpayers should now “be worried about the future of our land,” the city’s “most valuable” asset.

“Doug McCallum has a long history and habit of selling off city lands and it worries me that scrapping SCDC will put our land at risk,” Annis said.

Meantime, the city’s work to replace the Surrey RCMP with a city police force was the main target of councillors Monday as they wrung their hands over the city’s current financial situation.

“Right now we’re struggling at the $40-million mark” Councillor Steven Pettigrew said. “What happens if we get a second wave erupting, say it doubles to $80 million that we’re down. Right now we have enough money if we use it wisely, we use the transition money to be able to go through, weather the storm, but this money, this transition, this tens of millions of dollars being protected and will not be used for any other purpose other than the creation of the SPD, I’m really concerned about that.

READ ALSO: Surrey’s first quarter financial report forecasts budget shortfall up to $42 million

Slashing departmental budgets, making it “even more difficult” for city staff to be able to do their jobs and “putting more stress upon them,” he said, “puts our citizens at risk. We’ve already seen that with the reduction of officers, both the RCMP and the firefighters, and the roads are falling apart, so we’re putting our citizens at risk.

“Clayton, didn’t we do enough to them last time? And now we’re going to come at them again, to take away their community centre and delay that. We’re also looking again at more staff cutbacks. We’re not replacing our staff – we’re not firing anybody – but we’re not replacing them. So through attrition we’re going to lose staff,” Pettigrew said. “And now Newton’s starting to be hit. They’re going to lose a field up in Newton, they’re going to lose a park.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Pettigrew said. “And all of this to support a transition because we’re not willing to dip into the transitional fund which is protected.

“This is not the way to run a city. Businesses wouldn’t be run this way,” Pettigrew said, adding that if a CEO ran a business “this way, they’d be fired.”

Councillor Laurie Guerra called the corporate report “very impressive report.” She asked why the Surrey Fire Service’s average number of responses to incidents has dropped “substantially” compared to the same period last year.

Fire Chief Larry Thomas replied that the provincial health officer recommended removing fire first-responders from almost all medical calls.

“It is a bit of a tragedy that Surrey is one of the highest impacted cities, experiencing the higher death rate due to overdose. We hope to return to pre-COVID response as soon as possible,” Thomas said.

Councillor Linda Annis lamented the elimination of some recreational facilities.

“Families have been struggling for a long time through this. Kids have been at wits’ end in terms of what to do,” she said. “I’m very, very concerned that we’re delaying the opening of some of the facilities. Really I think what we should be doing is pausing the Surrey Police Department until we can afford it.”

Councillor Brenda Locke asked city staff if there is any other way to avoid “draconian” cuts.

Kam Grewal, Surrey’s general manager of finance, replied that the city could incur further debt, increase revenue through a levy or a tax related “or correlated to COVID, on a temporary basis,” through service reductions, “or really any combination of the above would be the options that are available to council.”

Councillor Jack Hundial said taxpayers are asking council to support front-line workers with personnel and equipment to help save lives.

“As people are now opening up their tax notices they’re also seeing a jump in their taxes, and they should know where the money is available, and the money is available in the police transition, all $25 million of it, to help take the pressure off people, and to help people cope with today’s financial realities as we’re still in the middle of this global pandemic and really don’t know what’s ahead,” Hundial said.

Councillor Mandeep Nagra asked if the city’s belt-tightening will delay the issuing of building permits. He was told the city’s planning department is fully staffed with no current vacancies and as such the processing of permits will not be impacted.



tom.zytaruk@surreynowleader.com

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