On Dec. 16, Surrey city councillors voted 5-4 in favor of approving a new city budget despite facing high levels of criticism.
Prior to passing the first draft of the budget in early December, councillors heard feedback from a crowd of Surrey residents. Participants in the budget draft meeting, which included the President of the Surrey Fire Fighters Association, also voiced their concerns about the budget.
Much of the criticism is centered around the budget’s allocation of funds to transition from having the RCMP to having a municipal police force in Surrey.
Currently, Surrey is the largest municipality in the country without its own police force. Mayor Doug McCallum came to power in 2018 on a platform which promised SkyTrain expansion instead of light rail and the creation of a Surrey police force.
The latest version of the budget earmarks $45 million for transitioning into using a new police force, with an additional $84.4 million to be distributed over the next five years. One of the most controversial outcomes of the budget is the implementation of a hiring freeze which will ensure that no new RCMP officers or firefighters will be hired in 2020.
Presently, Surrey has 364 firefighters, or one firefighter for every 1,500 residents, while Vancouver has one for every 800. Mark McRae, President of the Surrey Fire Fighters Association, began his speech with 30 seconds of silence to show how long a second can feel for someone who requires the help of a firefighter.
“We know we do more with less every year,” he said at the City Hall presentation of the draft in early December. This statement was met with applause.
He highlighted how Surrey is already short 24 firefighters, and with an annual growth of 10,000 residents each year, he is unsure how the city will stay safe. In the coming year the city will be short 72 firefighters. With Surrey in the middle of an opioid crisis, it will become increasingly difficult for the fire department, which is often the first responder in crisis situations, to react appropriately.
In addition to the hiring freeze, the budget also attributes little funding to the creation of new projects. Many attendees expressed their concern about spending money on a new police force at the expense of new infrastructure for the city such as sports arenas and performing arts spaces.
Before the draft meeting, Surrey City Councillor Linda Annis said, “We shouldn’t be putting all of our available funding into a police force that may or may not come to fruition at the expense of all the infrastructure.”
“We’re not only putting the residents of Surrey at risk, but we’re also putting our firefighters and RCMP who are serving us at risk as well,” she added.
The president of Surrey Environmental Partners, Deb Jack, asked why the Biodiversity Conservation Strategy had disappeared from the budget. Former Surrey City Councillor Mike Starchuck also criticized council for this cut after unanimously declaring a climate emergency just weeks prior.
Independent Councillor Steven Pettigrew asked Mayor Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey council members to speak to the largely disapproving crowd about why they sought to approve this budget, but all five of the councillors who voted in favor of it remained silent for the duration of the meeting.
Speaking to reporters after the draft approval meeting, Doug McCallum said that this was “the best” budget he had ever seen in his nine years of being Mayor. He also downplayed the extent of the criticism the budget received by pointing out that he is used to seeing much bigger crowds at budget meetings.