Controversial Surrey budget passes despite loud opposition

Surrey's budget has passed by a 5-4 vote, despite opposition from a loud and passionate crowd.

The group crowded Surrey city hall hours before the vote, trying to change council's mind on policing issues during the official budget consultation on Monday afternoon,

Surrey's 2020 budget includes an average 2.9 per cent property tax increase — approximately $59 for the average single-family home, staff estimate — along with one-time capital costs to help pay for the transition to an independent police force while the RCMP is still in operation. 

"I think this is the last chance for council to reconsider the choice it's taking," said Chris Kant, one of several speakers who criticized Surrey's plan to both transition to an independent police force over the next two years while adding no new RCMP officers in the interim. 

The hold-the-line budget was opposed by virtually every person who spoke at the finance committee meeting, along with several councillors who pushed for more spending. 

"Some of the councillors have been quite vocal about what we don't like in this budget," said Coun. Stephen Pettigrew, who called it a "disaster."

"I would like to hear from one of the other councillors that support this budget what they like about it and why they support it," he said to applause. 

While none did, the finance committee voted 5-4 to move the budget forward, with councillors Pettigrew, Linda Annis, Brenda Locke and Jack Hundial in opposition. The final vote to approve the budget is set for Dec. 16.

In a press conference held after the budget passed, McCallum responded to questions about the vocal opposition, saying "to be honest with you this is the lowest number of people I've seen at a public hearing on finance for a whole number of years."

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

Freezes on firefighters and most infrastructure

While much of the budget talk focused on the lack of police officers and the change to an independent force in 2021, the city's other safety department was also a source of contention.

"We know we do more with less every year," said Mark McRae, president of the Surrey Fire Fighters Association.

In its budget document, the city said there are "known pressures" on firefighters, but "due to the priority in establishing the [Surrey Police Department] and keeping tax increases to a minimum," no new funding would be available in 2020. 

"More infrastructure, more people and more congestion inevitably mean an increase in calls, while our funding stays the same," said McRae. 

McCallum said in the press conference that once Surrey transitions to an independent police force, new police officers will be hired "very, very quickly, maybe in the first quarter."

"The responsibility for the officers in the police and in the fire department rest entirely on the police chief and the fire chief. When we have our own city police, which we're going to get very quickly, the police chief determines how many officers he or she needs to make the city safe," he said.

"We won't know at this time, but we [have to] do a budget by law. So we left it the same."

Another point of the contention in the budget was a lack of significant infrastructure funding.

A year after council froze several long-term projects that had been previously approved, there were no new postponements in this year's budget — but little funding for new projects.

"Arts and recreation are very important," said Carolyn Carter, one of several speakers who took some of their speaking time to criticize a proposal by McCallum for a wandering canal in the northwest portion of the city — which to date has no funding attached to it. 

"Maybe our mayor and council should question which place is better for our teens to hang out: a community centre and sports arena or a canal," she said.