Surrey mayor defends cinched budget: 'We need to live within our means'

The mayor of Surrey is defending his council's proposed five-year spending plan that would cut $136 million slated for revitalized libraries and community centres, saying the city needs to cut its municipal debt load.

Community association president says now-postponed Cloverdale rink is sorely needed

'We need to live within our means in Surrey,' says Mayor Doug McCallum. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The mayor of Surrey is defending his council's proposed spending plan that would cut $136 million slated for revitalized libraries and community centres over five years, saying the city needed to lighten its municipal debt load.

Mayor Doug McCallum spoke to reporters Tuesday, the morning after the budget was posted online. It outlines how the city could save future debt with the "postponement" of previously approved, debt-funded projects across the city.

"We will not borrow any more. We need to live within our means in Surrey," the mayor said, adding that he thinks the proposed budget is "one of the best" he's seen.

"When we worked with our staff to put forward the budget, we said — very clearly — that we want it to be a more fiscal[ly] stable position today, which would allow us to be more flexible in the future."

Spending on the Cloverdale Sport & Ice Complex, the Grandview Heights Community Centre & Library, an Indigenous gathering place, a modular child care project, and work on RCMP facilities are on the list of proposed postponements.

'We're very upset'

One of the stalled projects that has garnered attention since Monday is the new ice rink in Cloverdale. The $44 million project would replace the current aging facility, something the neighbourhood's community association has fought for for five years.

Cloverdale Community Association president Mike Bola said the postponement was a big disappointment, though he'd heard "rumours."

Cloverdale Community Association has fought for a new ice rink for five years. (surrey.ca)

He said the lack of ice in the neighbourhood is exhausting as a parent with three hockey-playing kids — aged 15, 12 and 10 — when he has to drive them all around the Lower Mainland for their sport.

"If mayor and council stop this, it's going to be a huge thing in the next election and it's going to make or break certain slates," he said.

"There's no reason they should be stopping this particular arena," said Bola, 40.

On Tuesday, McCallum said there is a reason: "major" construction concerns.

"The land underneath it is very unstable and our engineering department says that we would not be able to build the ice arena on that stable ground unless we use pile driving techniques to build it," he said.

"Pile driving techniques, if anyone knows construction, is very expensive construction."

McCallum also said the city has seen a decline in hockey teams using ice time over the past eight years — though Bola said that's not the case and added that a chart provided by the city to reporters appeared to exclude a few organizations.

Former Surrey city councillor Barinder Rasode said she's "very concerned" about the halted investment for recreational centres.

"As we all know, Surrey does have some significant issues around crime and gang violence. By actually reducing opportunities for children and families in the city I think we're going down the wrong road," she said.

"There is no doubt that the more dollars we spend on children at an early age is actually saving long term in terms of crime reduction and having fully functioning adults in our society." 

Property tax increase

On top of the postponements, the proposed budget calls for a property tax increase that will work out to about $59 per home.

It also recommends an RCMP hiring freeze as the city transitions to a municipal police force — one of the biggest commitments and campaign promises from McCallum.

Last week, McCallum claimed he was "shaken to the core" after learning the city's debt apparently stood at $514 million.

A chart in the proposed budget documents outlines the debt-funded spending that could be 'postponed' by council, despite already being approved. (surrey.ca)

City staff later clarified that the figure was actually only projected debt — not existing debt — the city would incur under the current five year financial plan approved in December 2017.

The proposed budget will go to the city's finance committee Dec. 11.

With files from Jesse Johnston and Yvette Brend