B.C.’s two largest cities passed contentious budgets this week that left their councils divided, taxes raised significantly, and police saying their services will be seriously affected by cuts.
In Surrey’s case, the city’s RCMP assistant commissioner said Wednesday that the force can’t function with the reduced amount that has been allocated, which represents a 25-per-cent cut from last year’s $166-million police spending. It was voted on in council but won’t be officially passed until there’s a bylaw.
“If this proposed reduction were to move ahead without further agreements in place, it would impact adequate and effective levels of policing in the City of Surrey,” Assistant Commissioner Brian Edwards said in a statement provided to The Globe and Mail.
In Vancouver, council passed a $1.6-billion 2021 budget late Tuesday in a 6-5 vote, after days of speakers, questions and debate. It will require a 5-per-cent tax increase and freezes the police budget at 2020 levels.
Budget supporters, which included the mayor, Green Party, COPE and OneCity councillors, said it allowed the city to guarantee spending for basic services, equity, anti-racism work and climate change even though the city is dealing with an enormous impact from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel proud of a number of investments this council is making,” said OneCity’s Christine Boyle, who also brought in the ultimately successful motion to hold the police budget down.
But Non-Partisan Association (NPA) councillors and independent Rebecca Bligh said the city is going down a dangerous path, by using up most of its reserve money – $34-million for 2020, $57-million for 2021 – while also imposing a bigger-than-inflation tax increase on top of a 7-per-cent hike the year before.
“I’m really concerned about where we’ve ended up here. This is an unsustainable fiscal path,” said the NPA’s Sarah Kirby-Yung.
She and others noted that taxpayers will need to finance more increases in coming years to replenish the reserve fund.
However, Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he is hoping the reserves will not be drawn down as much as currently projected, because of federal money that is supposed to be coming in during 2021 for special COVID-19 relief.
The tax increase will mean $146 more for the average single-family house in Vancouver worth $1.6-million and $64 for the average condo worth $688,000.
Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer issued a statement saying that, because the police were allocated $316-million instead of $322-million, it will mean hiring 61 fewer police recruits.
That would represent almost 5 per cent of the department’s authorized force of 1,327. The budget the police were allocated is about 1.7 per cent less than what they asked for.
In Surrey, RCMP are facing a more dire situation: The budget passed by a 5-4 vote there on Monday will result in a $45-million reduction to their 2021 budget. Surrey’s police services cost $166.6-million in 2019.
The Surrey budget nominally resulted in a 2.9-per-cent tax increase.
But there was also a provision to triple the flat-rate parcel tax – a flat rate that is applied to all individual properties – from $100 to $300, something that will mean a much bigger percentage jump in overall taxes for lower-value properties than high-value ones. It will result in effective tax increases that range from 8 per cent to almost 15 per cent, depending on the value of the property.
In Vancouver, opposed councillors were particularly dismayed by the chaotic way the budget went through. Last-minute withdrawals from reserves had to be made to add $150,000 more for street cleaning – a fraction of the $2.2-million that staff had suggested be added – and $400,000 more for the startup costs of the auditor-general’s office.
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