SURREY â€” Surrey council is considering a budget Monday that will see the average Surrey tax bill rise by $162 â€“ something not sitting well with a watchdog organization.
Last year, the average tax bill for a single-family home, assessed at $648,000, was $1593. With the proposed increases, that would rise to $1,755 in 2015.
The city plans to add three bylaw officers in 2015, as well as 100 police officers â€“ a Surrey First promise along the campaign trail. The addition would bring the total number of officers at the Surrey detachment to 803.
The new officers will cost $3.9 million in 2015, with an annual impact of $14.5 million after that. When it comes to fire services, the city is looking at a $3.7 million increase in 2015, due to a new contract signed this fall.
A 2.9 per cent property tax increase is again planned, meaning an increase of $46.20 per year for the average single-family home.
As well, a one per cent road and traffic levy is proposed, an increase of $15.56 to the average single-family home.
And new this year is a proposed $100 â€œcultural and recreational parcel tax.â€
The tax bill will rise further for those with a secondary suite. Previously set at $410, the city is proposing to raise it to $526, a move said to bring it in live with taxes paid for a one-bedroom condo.
The city is also planning a 3.9 per cent fee increase across the board, which would include things like rec centre admission costs.
Coun. Tom Gill, chair of the cityâ€™s finance committee, said this yearâ€™s budget was difficult.
He said the costs associated with the number of officers was â€œexcessively higherâ€ than expected when setting last yearâ€™s five-year plan.
â€œBy no means did I ever expect the policing numbers, even though I knew that there was a (crime) report ongoing, did I ever comprehend that the number would be that high.â€
The city was faced with a choice, Gill explained. Balance the books by cutting back on capital projects, or add the new cultural tax and raise secondary suite fees to help cover the infrastructure the city had on the books.
â€œOne of my biggest concerns when I got into council was to make sure we had a very robust capital program,â€ Gill noted. â€œPolicing is just one of many elements that needs to be addressed, but certainly keeping our kids busy and doing constructive activities is probably the most important piece to me.â€
He said itâ€™s crucial to Surreyâ€™s future to have â€œhigh caliberâ€ facilities, such as the pools currently underway in Grandview and Guildford, noting they will bring national and international sport tourism opportunities to the city.
â€œSo I was very challenged. We could have easily said we can balance the budget with the 100 officers, and I could have easily suggested there was no money for the capital projects,â€ he said. â€œBut these investments are necessary.â€
Gill said he has heard loud and clear from neighbourhoods, such as Cloverdale, that the projects are highly desired, including a new ice rink in Cloverdale and a rec centre in Clayton.
Major capital projects in the budget include the Grandview pool ($55 million), a Guildford rec centre pool ($46.7 milion), Newton fitness expansion ($8 million) and a new works yard (66.5 million).
As well, there are a slew of capital investments planned for the next five years. All in all, they total $205 million, including a Clayton rec centre, a longboard facility, City Centre art space, expansion of Surrey Museum, district energy system, ice in Cloverdale and replacement of the North Surrey rec centre.
Gill described 2015 as a â€œuniqueâ€ budget year.
â€œI hope I donâ€™t have to replicate it in future years and Iâ€™m optimistic that I donâ€™t have to do that,â€ he said, noting the city will return to its regular increases â€“ 2.9 per cent to property tax and the one per cent road and traffic levy – for the remaining four years of the budget.
Heâ€™s not expecting to increase the cultural levy in future years and says secondary suite fees will likely face similar property tax raises that one-bedroom condos do.
Surrey has long since bragged about having the lowest taxes in the region.
Gill said heâ€™s been told by some community members that itâ€™s not always something to be proud of, as investments arenâ€™t always able to be made as a result. â€œAnd I can appreciate that,â€ he noted.
When it comes to utilities, water charges are set to rise by $9.68 a year ($48.40 per year for an average business), sewer rates by $12 a year ($60 a year for an average business) and the drainage parcel tax by $12 ($58 for commercial).
Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said he has concerns with Surrey increasing the secondary suite fees.
â€œHousing affordability is such an important issue, not just in Surrey but in the entire region. People move to Surrey because itâ€™s affordable. I always like to joke around with my millennial friends that thereâ€™s only three ways young people can afford housing â€“ either wealthy parents, a drug operation or a suite. So you donâ€™t want to do anything that makes suites more expensive,â€ he said, adding the secondary suite fee increase will likely result in higher rent costs.
â€œ(Secondary suites are) so important to the rental pool and theyâ€™re vital towards affordability for middleclass families trying to get into the housing market,â€ he said.
Bateman also took issue with the cityâ€™s proposed cultural tax, calling it â€œinelegant and ridiculous.â€
â€œItâ€™s essentially a hammer, it doesnâ€™t matter how many times you use the facilities, it doesnâ€™t matter what your income is or what your home is worth, itâ€™s just a flat tax. That always hurts lower-income, middle-income people harder than the higher-income. It fails the test of progressivity and it kind of fails the test of fairness to people.â€
Bateman said heâ€™s surprised to see how quick after an election Surrey is coming forward with a budget.
â€œMost councils are weeks, maybe months away from actually having their first budget bylaw reading,â€ he noted.
Gill emphasized the budget is not yet set in stone.
â€œThereâ€™s always the possibility that something could happen on Monday night, that council suggests we could change A or B or C, or cut this or cut that,â€ said Gill.
Surrey council is holding a budget meeting on Monday, Dec. 15 at 3 p.m. in council chambers, where the public can provide feedback. Comments will be considered up to and including Dec. 22.