Surrey’s new city hall a waste of taxpayers money: Former mayor Doug McCallum

Published: April 3, 2014

Former Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum on Surrey’s new city hall: “I don’t agree with it. I don’t agree with moving it and the costs associated with it. I think it’s going to show up in hurting the community in some places, as far as being able to build city facilities, because all the money’s been spent here.” KEVIN HILL, Surrey Now


METRO VANCOUVER — Surrey’s former mayor says the glitzy new city hall is “wasted taxpayers’ money.”

Doug McCallum poked his head into the city’s inaugural council meeting at the new building on March 31 – and said he did so by accident.

“I was in a meeting nearby, and I thought I’d drop by,” McCallum said as he looked around the room. “It’s a nice council chambers.”

But those words were quickly followed by critique of the spending it took to build the new site.

“I don’t agree with it. I don’t agree with moving it and the costs associated with it. I think it’s going to show up in hurting the community in some places, as far as being able to build city facilities, because all the money’s been spent here,” he said. “When I was involved in council there was often talk (of building a new hall), but we said no.”

To date, the city has stated the new hall would cost $97 million, but residents have questioned how much it will cost after financing. The interest generated over 25 years is expected to be around $48 million, but Vivienne Wilke, general manager of finance and technology, claims taxpayers won’t pay a dime on that.

McCallum went on to say the project has “wasted taxpayers’ money.”

“We had a good city hall, and we spent a lot of money fixing that up not long ago. So the council at that time was very much against it… City council shouldn’t be spending the money, basically, on themselves.”

McCallum was first elected to city council in 1993 and became mayor three years later. He was defeated by current Mayor Dianne Watts in 2005.

McCallum referenced the 2003 renovations to the old city hall, which cost around $9 million. As well, the city spent roughly $1.3 million in renovations in 2007. Records show the 2007 renovations were expected to satisfy the hall’s needs for at least five years while a longer-term plan was worked on. Then, in Mayor Dianne Watts’ state of the city address in 2008 she said the process had begun to move Surrey’s city hall into the downtown area.

McCallum said he finds it troubling that some communities are underserved in terms of civic facilities and arts spaces, when council has thrown millions at the new civic site.

“That’s kind of got my gut saying, ‘What’s going on with our city?’ he said.

McCallum said he believes today’s council has “lost their way a little bit.”

“The city should start simplifying its operations more. They’re developing too much of a bureaucracy and trying to do everything…. They need to get back to the basics, to be simple and just do the governance that all city governments do and not do all these things that the private sector can probably do better.”

The Surrey City Development Corporation was behind the city hall and civic plaza project, and McCallum calls for the corporation to be disbanded, claiming its existence creates a conflict of interest.

“A development company where the shareholders are council are in a conflict of interest when it comes before them to vote on it. It’s like voting for themselves. It’s a huge, huge conflict,” McCallum said.

SCDC was incorporated in 2007 with the mission to “help advance the city’s financial, social, business and community goals through the development of the city’s surplus land holdings and through strategic acquisition of properties ripe for redevelopment.”

Aubrey Kelly, president and CEO of SCDC, says allegations that the development corporation is in a conflict of interest are unfounded.

“There’s never been a project where you could even vaguely say there’s been some sort of conflict that I would have found the council is in,” Kelly said.

SCDC is held to the exact same standards that any other private developer is, Kelly emphasized.

“We have no shortcuts, we take a number and stand in line like any other developer and we are put through the rigour of planning principles and existing bylaws are applied to our projects,” he said.

Kelly said while council has approved SCDC projects, those projects have all come with recommendations from the various bodies, such as the planning and engineering departments, that have been put in place to scrutinize and vet projects. He said some projects have been met with negative feedback before making it to council.

“And we’ve had to go back to the drawing board,” he said. “There’s been no fasttracking or shortcuts that have been offered to us. And we wouldn’t want that.”

Kelly emphasized that SCDC is an entirely separate entity from the city.

“I could maybe vaguely see (McCallum’s) point if we were sort of a department of the city, writing the reports to council recommending our own approvals,” Kelly said, and stressed that SCDC is a standalone company, whose shareholder happens to be the City of Surrey.

Coun. Barinder Rasode said she sees value in having cities take on an entrepreneurial role but added that it’s imperative that there are strict oversight and accountability measures in place.

“It’s essential that SCDC acts cautiously and with a significant degree of transparency so that residents and the development community feel confident the organization is acting in the best interest of taxpayers and the city as a whole,” Rasode said.

Coun. Tom Gill said development corporations such SCDC are becoming the norm for large cities, pointing to Edmonton and Toronto.

“We are trying to capitalize on some opportunities and are using the Surrey development corporation to do that. And I think that one of the elements that people continue to forget is that there’s other elements outside of just money-making components,” he said, adding SCDC facilitates opportunities in the realms of education, homelessness and economic development.

“There’s many aspects that SCDC is working on outside of just their core ability to raise funds for the city,” he said.

In the city’s south, McCallum is dead set against a proposed cultural hub project that would see two high rises as part of the development, which SCDC is behind.

SCDC is in joint venture with Reifel Cooke Group to develop 330,000 square feet of market and seniors residential with retail at grade, as well as an arts and culture facility.

The proposed South Surrey cultural hub, which would include an arts centre, café and gallery built at 152nd Street and 19th Avenue, would be part of a 350-unit residential development that would see a 26-storey and 19-storey tower built on top of arts amenities.

Plans show the proposed arts centre would total 22,000 square feet, including a proscenium theatre, a studio theatre, rehearsal hall and dressing rooms. The other part of the arts proposal includes a 6,900-square-foot contemporary arts centre that would include a café and gallery and exhibit space.

The project has been welcomed by some, such as the Surrey Board of Trade, but is opposed by some residents opposed to high rise developments in the area.

McCallum said he plans to come out publicly and speak strongly against the proposal.

“We have always said we don’t want high rises in South Surrey…. I’m very strong against it. It’s one thing that’s really got my stomach growling a little bit.”

McCallum added that he’s in favour of a South Surrey cultural centre – one without high rises.

“It might be just one of many things which council is saying, ‘We can’t build it because we don’t have the money without the high rises.’ But you just spent over $100 million on city hall. Why couldn’t you have taken some of that money and started building facilities in our different communities?”

So, does McCallum’s reappearance into the public realm mean he’s eyeing the mayor’s chair? “I hear you’re going to run in the next election,” Watts joked with him at the council meeting.

“No,” McCallum said with a chuckle. “Haven’t even thought about it.”

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