COLUMN: Tax-boost excuse a bit rich

Surrey council must be watched closely, writes PAN columnist Frank Bucholtz.

Surrey residents will dig 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, chair of the finance committee for nine years, said a “modest” increase to the cultural and recreational levy – $10 or $15 added to the fee that was first implemented by the nine-member Surrey First council this year – is also coming.

Keep in mind there the cultural levy was a surprise. 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 last year’s election campaign.

There is no doubt funds need to be raised to pay the capital costs for new cultural and recreational facilities in Surrey, given the fast-growing population. But council seems to want to finance more and more areas of city services with levies that are outside general-revenue taxation.

Surrey residents also pay a drainage levy and a road/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 from the city.

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 that up.

Unless the city cuts costs in other areas – very difficult to do when confronted with growth – taxes will have to rise more. Given cost pressures, a minimum four per cent tax increase is likely – not counting increases to other levies.

Gill also took a shot at the long-departed Doug McCallum regime, saying “there were no tax increases” for some of that time, and the city is playing catch-up.

It is true the much-touted tax freeze was criticized at that time, given that demand for services was growing. However, Gill’s Surrey First party has been in place for close to nine years now.

As well, Gill himself 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 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 10 years.

There is a need for a tax increase in 2016. No city can grow at this pace without a need for more services. However, Surrey First’s absolute control of council means there is little real debate about what services are most-needed, and how to pay for them.

While that may make it easy to ignore voices of dissent, council needs to raise and manage tax revenues as wisely as possible. There’s no need for partisan shots at long-departed mayors and levies that come out of nowhere.

Voters elected nine Surrey First members to council one year ago, because it was 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, Surrey First council can keep boosting taxes and get away with it. Taxpayers must remain vigilant.

Frank Bucholtz writes Fridays for Peace Arch News.

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