‘We’re not going away’: Group plans rally as Surrey council prepares to adopt divisive budget

Rally planned outside Surrey city hall before final budget vote Monday
While supporters say it's visionary, opponents of Surrey's 2020 budget, which contains no funding for any new RCMP officers or firefighters, are planning a "Speak Up Surrey" rally outside city hall ahead of council's final vote Monday. Kristen Robinson reports.

As Surrey city council plans to formally adopt a budget that has divided residents over its approach to public safety, a group led by a former councillor will try to change their minds one last time.

Council on Monday will hold their final vote on the 2020 financial plan, which includes no money for new police officers or firefighters and prioritizes funds to get the new civic police force up and running.

But that vote may be overshadowed by the “Speak Up Surrey” rally planned to be held outside City Hall during the council meeting.

READ MORE: Surrey approves divisive budget after charged public meeting

Organizer Mike Starchuk, who sat on council from 2014 to 2017, is hoping the group can convince just one councillor who voted “yes” earlier this month to reconsider.

“We want to take this last opportunity just in case somebody has a sober second thought about what they’re doing,” he said Saturday. “Maybe they could just pump the brakes and shelve some of the stuff that’s there for a later date, really evaluate the kind of money that we’re talking about spending.

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“The city has to find another way forward,” he added. “We’re not going away.”

Surrey budget vote
Surrey budget vote

Council voted 5-4 in favour of the draft budget, which also features no money for new community centres, youth programs or environmental measures, including efforts to combat climate change at the local level.

Instead, it features a one-time cost of $45.2 million in 2020 for the planned transition to a municipal police force, on top of $84.4 million for “additional operating costs” spread out over the next five years.

The budget also includes a hiring freeze for city staff, outside of ensuring soon-to-open civic facilities like the Clayton Heights Community Centre are adequately staffed.

READ MORE: Surrey’s top cop says divisive new budget will have ‘detrimental effect’ on policing

Protesters crammed into the council chambers during that earlier vote to voice their displeasure, loudly clapping after each speaker despite repeated warnings to refrain from applause.

After the budget passed, then-Assistant Commissioner and Officer in Charge of the Surrey RCMP Dwayne McDonald said the plan will have a “detrimental effect” on RCMP members and staff, who are still mandated to police the city until the new force is expected to take over in 2021.

Starchuk, who is also a retired Surrey firefighter, says the budget’s threat to public safety goes beyond the hiring freeze for police and fire crews. Even infrastructure improvements have been largely abandoned, he said, which could impact response times.

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Surrey’s “top cop” calls out mayor on city’s budget
Surrey’s “top cop” calls out mayor on city’s budget

“The city is growing by 10,000, 12,000 people every year, but there’s no new money within the budget for our roads,” he said. “So as our roads become more congested, it makes it longer to get to where (first responders) need to go.

“We don’t know why they’re thinking along those lines. It’s not a safer city by saying ‘no’ to public safety.”

Councillors who voted against the budget have said the city could easily find enough money to pay for both the police transition and other services by approving a modest increase in property taxes — something Mayor Doug McCallum has vowed never to do while he’s in charge.

READ MORE: 4 Surrey city councillors call out Mayor Doug McCallum’s police transition plan

But Coun. Allison Patton, one of the remaining members of McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition who voted in favour of the budget, commended city staff for their “innovation and creativity” in finding other revenue streams.

“I think the budget is one of the most visionary budgets I’ve seen in my time in business,” she said.

“This budget is something that will set Surrey in the Metro Vancouver region ahead of all the other cities, and it positions us well for the future.”

Fireworks over Surrey budget
Fireworks over Surrey budget

Patton pointed out that council voted unanimously to move ahead with the police transition last November, and needs to remain committed to seeing that promise through.

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“I don’t know that you can equate safety to dollars in all cases,” she said. “So I think they were setting up for the future and we’re taking quick action.

“I think a number of people are surprised at how quickly this is moving. And we need to move quickly because our citizens need to feel safe.”

Oppal says McCallum’s Surrey police transition timeline is incorrect
Oppal says McCallum’s Surrey police transition timeline is incorrect

Three city councillors have since left McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition and joined independent Coun. Linda Annis in voicing concerns about the transition plan.

All four of those councillors — Annis, Jack Hundial, Brenda Locke and Steven Pettigrew — voted against the budget.

Monday’s rally will feature speakers including Darlene Bennett, whose husband Paul was killed in the family’s driveway in a mistaken identity targeted shooting in 2018.

Bennett has spoken out against the police transition and the budget as a whole, which Starchuk says has “galvanized the whole city.”

“We’ll find out Monday for sure whether or not the city is together or it’s really divided,” he said. “But for the rest of the budget, if you take a look at all those other things, I’m not that worried that we’re that far apart.”