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Rob Shaw: Politics – and property taxes – continue to complicate Surrey's policing problem

The pressure is rising on Solicitor General Mike Farnworth to grant Surrey’s return to the RCMP, as the city’s mayor tries to pin the blame for rising property taxes on the NDP government. Mayor Brenda Locke announced a 17.
RCMP offices in Surrey | RCMP

The pressure is rising on Solicitor General Mike Farnworth to grant Surrey’s return to the RCMP, as the city’s mayor tries to pin the blame for rising property taxes on the NDP government.

Mayor Brenda Locke announced a 17.5 per cent tax increase in the city’s draft five-year budget this week – an enormous hike, but one she warned could be even worse if Farnworth denies Surrey’s request to retain the RCMP and scrap the transition to a municipal police force started by the previous council.

“All of our accounting is very clear that going forward with this Surrey Police Service is going to cost the residents dearly, not just today but for generations,” said Locke.

The mayor has previously warned taxes might have to increase as much as 55 per cent if the NDP government doesn’t let the city rejoin the RCMP.

Is that figure accurate? Probably not. Is it fair to blame the BC NDP government for Surrey’s financial woes, caused by its never-ending fighting and flip-flopping on policing? Largely, no.

Yet the mayor has nonetheless zeroed in on a major pressure point within the Surrey-dependent BC New Democratic Party. As a result, the government is scrambling to figure out what to do.

A visibly ticked Farnworth tried frowning his way out of the issue Tuesday. He especially bristled at  the question of whether his government’s stalling for time is in any way worsening the potential tax tsunami about to swamp Surrey residents.

“That’s just nonsense,” he said. “Surrey are the ones that said they wanted to go back to the RCMP. What has to happen is that there is a proper plan in place.”

Farnworth earlier this month asked all parties involved (the RCMP, Surrey police and the city) for more information, because nobody could agree on even the most basic information about costs and staffing. That information arrived last week, he said.

“This is not some exercise about oh here is our plan, rubber stamp it and check off a few boxes,” said Farnworth.

“There are serious repercussions in terms of policing, right across the province. You have to restaff 300-some-odd positions. How are you going to do that? Where are you going to get those officers from? They don't just appear out of thin air.”

The NDP desperately wants to avoid getting associated with a record tax hike in Surrey. But then, so does the mayor and pretty much everyone else involved. It’s like a game of political musical chairs.

That’s left ample room for the Opposition BC Liberals to twist the issue even further.

“Let's be clear, this is a total mess,” said Liberal MLA Shirley Bond.

“The people that are going to have to pay for this government's incompetence and delays are the people of Surrey, a nearly 20 percent increase in their taxes.

“That would be a record tax hike in the city of Surrey. Every single day that this minister delays making the decision on the future of policing in Surrey only serves to increase anxiety about the cost to Surrey residents.”

The Liberals pointed out to a clause in the Surrey police contract that allows for 18 months of paid severance to staff who’ve worked only six months – a potential financial landmine that could dramatically increase transition costs.

Bond tried to blame Farnworth, but Farnworth said those kinds of details were negotiated by the municipality and its police board, not him.

Whether voters see that kind of distinction is unclear.

The political risk has elevated the file to the desk of Premier David Eby.

“Our job is very clear: We are going to make sure that when someone in Surrey dials 9-1-1 when they need a police officer to respond, that regardless of the plan of the city council, whether it's to go to Surrey Police Service or back to the RCMP, that there's a police officer that responds to that call,” Eby said Tuesday.

Ultimately, when it comes to policing, the premier argued that “the decision will be made by Surrey city council.

“That will be a local matter,” he added.

It’s technically true. But there’s also no getting around Farnworth’s statutory role either.

Ultimately, the Surrey policing decision is shaping up to be a lot less about policing than it is about politics.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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