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Surrey taxpayers would fork out $155M on a failed police transition

By 2027, staff estimate the city will be $235 million ahead by reversing the transition and keeping the Mounties.
Members of Surrey City Council stand in front of a conceptualized Surrey Police Department vehicle on May 7, 2019. Photo via

Surrey city council will vote Monday to either cut the rope and push reset on the RCMP or pursue the Surrey Police Service (SPS).

The City of Surrey is poised to save $235 million over the next five years, should it reverse course on its municipal police transition project and maintain the RCMP — but not before shelling out more than $155 million, according to fiscal estimates presented in a staff report this week.

Since a five-member majority on council, including Mayor Brenda Locke, was elected on a platform to ditch the transition, it can be expected the city will opt to send the report, which includes a plan to retain the RCMP as the official police of jurisdiction, to Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth for final approval next month.

Should the province — which is not involved in any direct costs — approve the plan, Surrey will reverse course on a transition that began in November 2018 and has been subject to divisive debates since, largely on accounts of transparency.

The transition, forged by former mayor Doug McCallum, began with a hiring freeze on the Surrey RCMP, leaving the detachment with 734 officers exclusively serving Surrey, not including integrated regional units. The SPS has 168 officers on patrol under RCMP command, leaving 566 Mounties on duty. About 30 officers are transitioning per month, at the moment, according to SPS chief Norm Lipinski.

The report highlights significant costs incurred due to overlapping detachments/administrations — costs that had never been made clear to the public before.

The report first addresses the costs of each detachment on its own. Over a year, the SPS would cost $183.1 million, whereas the RCMP would cost $151.2 million. Accounting for the $31.9 million difference is a $16.8 million federal subsidy RCMP detachments benefit from and lower average costs per officer ($249,460 for SPS to $205,990 for RCMP). The report notes that annual savings will grow with inflation and by adding more officers. By 2027, the SPS would cost $211.6 million annually, whereas RCMP would cost $174.4 — a savings of $37.2 million.

But before getting to a point where Surrey is once again policed by only one detachment, staff were tasked to weed out the costs for scenarios where both exist — a forgone conclusion for 2023.

In a scenario that keeps the SPS, Surrey will need to pay $262 million in each of 2023 and 2024 until most of the Mounties disappear by 2025. This difference is mainly due to the city paying for SPS officers assigned to administrative tasks, which Lipinski has described as policy crafting. The city is also footing the bill for two administrations — incoming and outgoing.

The report assumes the RCMP would have a full suite of officers again by 2024 if the transition is terminated, whereas the SPS will need until 2025 to displace the Mounties entirely.

Hence, scrapping the transition and keeping the RCMP would mean annual, ongoing net savings in the tens of millions of dollars, plus savings by not having as many excess costs in 2025.

Offsetting these savings, in part, is the money spent to date on the transition and further funds needed to reverse the transition, particularly in 2023. These costs amount to over $155 million, according to figures in the report: $38 million in one-time costs spent to date, $21 million in excess operating (administrative) costs in 2022, and an extra $95.7 million in 2023.

The bulk of the cancellation costs in 2023 will be to provide SPS officers with 18-month severance. The report assumes about half the number of officers will only receive nine-months severance as they will be employed elsewhere. To ditch the SPS will cost $81 million in severance in 2023, the report estimates.

Ultimately by 2027, staff estimate the city will be $235 million ahead by reversing the transition and keeping the Mounties.

The SPS has criticized the report for its assumptions, including the two years it is assumed will take to hire an additional 419 officers. It also questions the RCMP’s ability to re-hire the 168 officers it lost in just one year, pointing to recruiting challenges highlighted in an RCMP union report from last April.

The SPS has estimated the annual operating cost difference to be closer to $18 million than $37.2 million.

The Surrey Police Union also claims few SPS officers want to transfer to the RCMP, which is a key assumption to re-recruiting Mounties for the detachment.

The report states the city will be responsible for the disposition of the existing SPS infrastructure, such as information technology and vehicles, but does not specify the exact costs and plan.

The analysis does not contemplate the “qualitative aspects” of either SPS or RCMP policing services, the report notes. When the transition was envisioned in 2018, it was assumed a municipal force would cost more, and proponents spoke of the value of a local police board instead of more central decision-making by the RCMP. Officer retention within the community was also seen as a benefit of a local force.

The de-transition plan, hence, envisions better collaboration between RCMP executives and city staff and council by re-establishing an oversight committee (which was abolished by the previous council in the form of a safety committee). The new “Local Police Committee” may include “promoting good relations between residents and police, advising the Minister and police on matters concerning the adequacy of policing and law enforcement in the City, and other duties that the Minister may specify.”

Councillors Linda Annis and Mike Bose from Surrey First have questioned the report ahead of Monday evening’s vote. Annis said the SPS should have had greater input on the report.

She noted significant discrepancies in estimates before the report, with Locke estimating savings of $520 million and SPS noting its far lower savings estimates.

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