COLUMN: Tax hike is needed in 2016

No city can grow at Surrey's pace without more services, including police, firefighters, roads, and utilities.

Surrey residents will be digging deeper into their wallets next year, with a tax increase a certainty and additions to other fees coming as well.

The new police officers promised in the 2014 election campaign are proving costly, even though they still aren’t all here. It cost Surrey taxpayers $3.9 million for the new officers in 2015, and costs will be substantially higher when they all arrive.

Coun. Tom Gill, who has been chair of the finance committee for nine years, said a “modest” increase to the culture and recreation levy – $10 or $15 added to the fee that was first implemented this year – is also coming.

Keep in mind there was no discussion of this levy in the election campaign last year. It was a surprise when the nine-member Surrey First council implemented it. Gill’s word “modest” seems misplaced when talking about a 10- to 15-per-cent increase to a new levy that wasn’t even discussed during the election.

There is no doubt that funds need to be raised to help pay the capital costs for new cultural and recreational facilities in Surrey, but council seems to want to finance more and more areas of city services with levies, which are outside general revenue taxation. Surrey residents also pay a drainage levy and a road and traffic levy. They also pay separately to operate the water, sewer and garbage utilities.

Last year, those specific levies and utilities accounted for about one-quarter of the total tax bill.

As for the general tax increase, it appears it will be over three per cent. The city’s five-year capital plan calls for a 2.9-per-cent tax increase, but Gill said added policing costs will eat up all that tax increase. Unless the city cuts costs in other areas, which is difficult to do when confronted with growth everywhere, taxes will have to go up. Given the cost pressures, a minimum four-per-cent tax increase is quite likely – not counting all the increases to the other levies.

Gill also took a shot at the long-departed Doug McCallum regime, saying that “there were no tax increases” for some of that time, and the city is now playing catch-up. It is true the much-touted tax freeze was criticized at the time, given the fact that demand for services was growing due to increased population.

However, Gill’s Surrey First party has been in place for close to nine years now. Gill himself originally ran with McCallum’s Surrey Electors Team in 2005, and was elected to council while McCallum lost to Dianne Watts, a former SET councillor. Gill and other SET members of council initially opposed and obstructed Watts, but later joined with her to become Surrey First.

Blaming a former mayor for the challenges of today is a bit rich, given that McCallum has been out of office, while Gill has been in office, for the past decade.

There is a need for a tax increase in Surrey in 2016. No city can grow at this pace without more services, including police, firefighters, roads, and utilities.

However, Surrey First’s absolute control of council means there is little real debate about what services are most needed, and how best to pay for them.

While that may make it easy for council to implement a tax increase and ignore voices of dissent, it needs to raise and manage tax revenues as wisely as possible.

Voters elected nine Surrey First members to council one year ago because they believed they were competent managers of the city’s business. It’s important to keep a close eye on just how they manage that business. For the next three years, the Surrey First council can keep boosting taxes and get away with it. Taxpayers need to remain vigilant.

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

 

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