COLUMN: Levy not a nice surprise

Surrey's new $100 culture and recreation tax was not mentioned during the recent municipal election campaign.

The freshly elected Surrey council, 100 per cent made up of Surrey First members, acted as Scrooges in what was almost the first act of the nine people who will run the city’s affairs in the next four years.

Council handed out what is, in effect, a 10-per-cent tax increase, although it is couched in language to make residents think their taxes are only rising by a more modest 2.9 per cent.

What was most surprising and disappointing was the imposition of a $100 recreation and culture levy on each property on the tax roll. This was not mentioned during the recent municipal election campaign and few saw this coming. Its imposition smacks of the way the provincial government brought in the HST after the 2009 provincial election. In Surrey’s case, it was introduced even more quickly – just three weeks after the election.

Few Surrey residents will discount the importance of building enough recreation facilities for a fast-growing population, in a city which has a high percentage of young people.

However, given that most people accept the need for such facilities, why did Surrey First not bring up its plan to impose this tax during the election? Given the margins that all of its candidates won by, it hardly would have derailed their victory. It also would have been the honest thing to do.

A $100-per-parcel tax is also unfair. It would be better to have the tax as a general line item and that way people with higher assessments would pay more, while those whose assessments are lower would pay less. It might even raise more than the $16 million the city expects from the new parcel tax.

However, that would have interfered with the political spin that taxes are only going up 2.9 per cent, so council chose the flat tax.

Council has also boosted secondary suite fees by 28 per cent. This too does not count as a “tax” increase.

Council defends its 2.9-per-cent tax increase by saying it will be used to pay for increased policing, which most people agree is necessary. There is no doubt that policing and crime issues dominated the campaign. All three political slates promised there would be a substantial investment in new policing. A tax increase was a certainty.

However, because of the intense focus on the crime issue, voters paid little attention to other spending plans. The last Surrey First council showed a desire to build new facilities – libraries, recreation centres, city hall and other facilities. These are needed in a growing city.

However, the $100 tax was the first indication from Surrey First to taxpayers about  how all these buildings were to be paid for.

The new Surrey First council under Mayor Linda Hepner has got off to a challenging start. To bring in massive tax increases at the beginning of a four-year term is an old political trick, often used in the past by federal and provincial governments. In many cases, dominant parties have gotten away with it. A lack of opposition voices at the council table makes it even easier.

The B.C. Liberals figured they would get away with the HST in 2009. They did not factor in the possibility that a referendum campaign might actually succeed.

There is no mechanism to recall members of council, or force a referendum on an unexpected tax increase, and it isn’t certain that Surrey residents would even be interested in going that route. However, the new council now has a big trust deficit with many Surrey residents and will have to work hard to rebuild that level of trust.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

 

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