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How the BC NDP can help Surrey mayor solve police mystery

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As the Surrey police saga continues, Premier David Eby is looking for a solution that protects taxpayers and increases his government's chances of re-election

If Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke has a number in mind that could end the province's police dispute, now would be a good time to bring it up again. Because even though British Columbia's NDP government won a technical victory in court last week, it's clear that the New Democrats are still looking for a realistic solution to end this conflict before the October election.

Prime Minister David Eby reopened the door to negotiations with Locke on Monday.

“We're all ready to move on,” he said. “And I hope the mayor and city council are finally at a point where we can move on, because Surrey is the fastest-growing city in British Columbia, probably the fastest-growing city in Canada, and we need to work together.”

Eby and his extremely powerful office, where power is concentrated, will likely act as a bargaining tool. Court documents submitted in the wake of the latest dispute show the premier took a direct approach to Locke after she complained of personal animosity and a breakdown in communications with Attorney General Mike Farnworth.

In practical terms, there is no longer any option for Locke or the city to act.

In theory, they could appeal the British Columbia Supreme Court ruling, but that would be a delaying tactic at best, because the ruling made it crystal clear that the province had the power to pass legislation that would force the city to continue the transition from the RCMP to the new Surrey Police Service.

The remaining question concerns money.

The NDP has offered up to $250 million in aid for police – but took $100 million of that off the table in early April after Surrey refused to accept the terms. Surrey says the true cost of transforming policing is more than $464 million over 10 years.

Officially, Eby said there was still $150 million available from the province. “The money is still there,” he said on Monday.

Unofficially, the full $250 million is back in play, given the Prime Minister's cryptic answer to my question about this specific amount.

“I can assure the people of Surrey that we will ensure taxpayers are protected,” he said.

“We will ensure that the transition costs take into account the people of the City of Surrey.

“But how we do that, given the ongoing issues we have with the Mayor of Surrey and her continued desire to prolong, extend and exacerbate this conflict rather than find a way for us to move forward in a solid way, is difficult to say at this point.”

The difference between the province and Surrey is $214 million. While that's not a small amount, it's not exactly financially devastating for a government with an annual budget of $90 billion.

The NDP could, if it wanted, undermine Locke's latest stand by simply amending the wording of its final offer to say: $150 million now, and up to another $314 million over the next ten years if and when that money proves necessary to prevent future police-related tax increases for Surrey residents.

The down payment remains the same, only the 10-year guarantee changes.

Maybe all that money won't be needed because the province has its own cost statement that shows a smaller amount. And maybe after the next municipal election in two years, the NDP won't have to deal with Locke at all.

But New Democrats fear that capitulating to Locke's numbers could set a precedent and encourage other mayors to set their own police amounts in future disputes – a problem that could become more common as the RCMP begins to phase out contract policing.

That's a fair point. But then again, there is no other mayor whose city is in ten provincial constituencies. The NDP wants to win those constituencies in less than five months. To do that, the party may have to overcome its fear of setting a precedent.

The province has the alternative of putting pressure on Locke and her council.

The government will likely have to impose a new police budget on the city after city council this month rejected the budget proposal from government-appointed Surrey Police Board administrator Mike Serr.

The government could agree to the $141 million budget recommended by Serr and administer the basic $150 million financial aid package itself.

This did not, however, stop Locke from running an opposition election campaign against the New Democrats in Surrey over the next four months, accusing all ministers, MPs and candidates of being responsible for the huge increases in local taxes due to the province's stubbornness.

That's ultimately what the BC NDP is trying to avoid. And there is a way to avoid it. But to do that, the New Democrats have to hold their noses and help Locke save face by offering more money. Otherwise, the fight will continue.

Rob Shaw has covered British Columbia politics for more than 16 years. He now reports for CHEK News and writes for Glacier Media. He is co-author of the national bestseller A question of trustHost of the weekly podcast Political capitaland regular guest on CBC Radio.

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