COLUMN: Surrey has vested interest in RCMP contract squabble

The provincial and federal governments are in a deadlock about whether the RCMP should remain in B.C., to do provincial and municipal policing.

The provincial and federal governments are in a deadlock about whether the RCMP should remain in B.C., to do provincial and municipal policing.

This leaves Surrey, with the largest RCMP detachment in the country, squarely on the horns of a huge dilemma.

Mayor Dianne Watts made that point abundantly clear last week at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, when news of the impasse over a 20-year contract became public.

One of the sticking points in the negotiations is cost containment. Municipalities have some very good reasons for insisting on this as a feature of the new agreement, because in the past, directives from Ottawa have often put a huge burden on local taxpayers. Cities make up for these costs, which have often been handed down unexpectedly, through property taxes.

Some future hits are on the horizon. One is the ballooning cost of the E Division headquarters in the Green Timbers area of Surrey. The new structure would serve as the RCMP’s B.C. headquarters and house 2,700 personnel.

A contract to build the new facility was signed in April, 2010 with a private partner, Green Timbers Accommodation Partners, for a fixed cost of $966 million. It was originally estimated that it would cost about $300 million, and Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, who has been on the negotiating team, said costs could rise to $1.2 billion.

Another potential cost on the horizon involves labour costs. The RCMP is non-union, but there has been a move underway to unionize the force. If that were to happen, RCMP members could start receiving overtime. Given court delays and understaffing in large detachments like Surrey, this could add significant costs.

Surrey has said repeatedly that it wants to keep the RCMP, and the working relationship between the city and the Surrey RCMP detachment is excellent. Assistant Commissioner Fraser MacRae, commanding officer of Surrey RCMP, works well with the political and administrative leaders of the city.

Surrey has invested in RCMP facilities, such as the new building built to house the Guildford/Fleetwood policing precinct, and a large expansion of the main detachment building was recently completed.

Surrey also likes having a large RCMP presence, as the RCMP will always deal with federal policing matters like border issues and immigration cases – and there are plenty of cases on both fronts in Surrey.

Surrey is reluctant to set up its own police force, although that would likely be a possibility if the RCMP contract is not extended. The province doesn’t seem to have much of a Plan B at present.

The RCMP contract should be extended, but with the understanding that a civilian agency will oversee investigation of all police-related deaths and serious injuries, as is planned. There also needs to be cost containment measures, so that municipal taxpayers don’t get stuck with large and unexpected bills.

If the federal government was willing to sign a contract, limiting a rise in RCMP expenses to no more than two per cent per year, municipal governments would have more certainty. This would also act as an incentive for Ottawa to keep a closer eye on RCMP costs. If for some reason, the costs rise more than two per cent, Ottawa should be prepared to absorb those additional costs, as it has much more taxing ability than any other level of government.

What we are seeing now are the challenges that go into negotiating a new contract. What we would like to see is a contract that treats all parties – the RCMP members, all three levels of government and taxpayers – fairly, and allows the RCMP to keep policing Surrey as effectively as they have in the past 60 years.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.