Citing Surrey’s current police transition stalemate as a “total mess” that threatens a record tax hike for city residents, B.C. Liberals went on the attack against the NDP government during Question Period in the Legislature this week.
They highlighted a situation in which Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke, council and staff are still awaiting official approval from the province on their decision to return to RCMP policing, rather than continuing with the Surrey Police Service, ushered into existence by former mayor Doug McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition majority.
In increasingly acrimonious debate on Tuesday (Feb. 21) – underlined by heckling from both sides of the house – MLAs Trevor Halford (Surrey-White Rock) and Shirley Bond (Prince George-Valemount) repeatedly pressed premier David Eby and solicitor general (and Minister of Public Safety) Mike Farnworth to “fix” the contentious issue.
On Wednesday (Feb. 22) it was the turn of Mike de Jong (Abbotsford West) to grill the government about its role in the transition.
“This is a total mess, and the people who are going to have to pay for this government’s incompetence and delays are the people of Surrey,” Bond said.
All three MLAs charged that, in signing off on the transition, Farnworth must have known that the Surrey Police Service contract included a clause guaranteeing officers 18 months severance pay after six months of service.
This, they claimed, is a major factor driving up the cost for the city to dissolve the SPS and return to 100-per-cent RCMP policing, which, in turn, has led to the potential record increase in taxes of at least 17.5 per cent.
In response, Farnworth repeatedly stated he was not party to the terms of the collective agreement, which was negotiated between the SPS and the Surrey Police Board.
“That is a local responsibility,” he said, noting that Surrey has also agreed that it would shoulder the costs of returning to RCMP policing.
He also insisted that the government is continuing to analyze supplemental information provided by the City of Surrey and Surrey RCMP, to guarantee that a plan for transitioning back to Surrey RCMP ensures the safety of Surrey residents.
In answer to questions from Halford, Farnworth said his staff had received Surrey’s plans on transitioning back, and RCMP plans on how it would manage staffing, just prior to Christmas.
Staff, he said, had subsequently identified “a range of gaps” in the planning that needed addressing.
“We have just received responses to the questions and concerns we had from the City of Surrey…we have received the RCMP’s plan, in terms of how they plan to re-staff. That plan is being analyzed as quickly as possible.
“I was asked whether I expected this to be done in months or weeks,” he added.
“I said I expected weeks… My responsibility is to ensure that there is a safe and effective transition that ensures safe and effective policing for the city of Surrey,” Farnworth continued.
“That work is underway. I want that work to be done as quickly as possible. The City of Surrey wants it to be done as quickly as possible, and I know the residents of Surrey want it to be done as quickly as possible.”
But De Jong would not let go of the question of what the government knew about the police contracts and the 18-month severance clause.
“The problem the government is having is that you can’t have it both ways,” he said.
“They can’t, on the one hand, tell the House and the people of Surrey that they were engaged in this intricate oversight process…and then, on the other hand, deny any responsibility whatsoever for this looming astronomical tax increase that is coming…
“Were the province, the premier and his government simply asleep at the switch and let this incredible provision slide by, to the detriment of the Surrey taxpayers, or were they fully aware of it, and left the Surrey taxpayers on the hook to pay astronomical tax increases?”
Farnworth, however, insisted that the province’s purview extended only to the basic service contract, and not the collective agreements negotiated between the city, the police board and the SPS.
Halford told Peace Arch News this week that he is far from satisfied with the government’s response so far.
“They signed off on the transition… (and then) took their eyes off what was happening,” he said.
“I get that the safety aspects need to be studied, but at the end of the day we need a timeline on when a decision will be made.
“The longer this goes on, the bigger the cost to Surrey taxpayers. At a time when people are struggling to pay for their basic needs, we are looking at the biggest tax increase ever for Surrey residents. I have constituents on fixed incomes, constituents who have young families.
“The province needs to take responsibility in this.”