Vancouver needs a municipal auditor general

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

21 comments

24hrs vancouver
Today's 24 Hours column supports the Province's proposed M.A.G.

A few weeks ago Mayor Gregor Robertson told the media that it was “ignorant” for people to think he could find one per cent savings within his billion-dollar city hall budget. He was responding to criticisms that Metro Vancouver mayors appeared too eager to jack up taxes, rather than undertake budget cuts, to help pay for the new Evergreen Line.

During her bid to become leader of the BC Liberal Party, Premier Christy Clark floated a very interesting proposal about creating a new municipal auditor general. She thought it was time that civic officials underwent the same kind of financial scrutiny that provincial and federal governments must face each year.

It’s easy to argue that Sheila Fraser, Canada’s auditor general, has clearly shaken things up at the federal level. She’s worked tirelessly, regardless of which party is in power, at ensuring there is value in every tax dollar spent. The same can be said for B.C.’s auditor general.

However, at the municipal level there is no similar watchdog. There are merely a handful of poorly paid, part-time civic politicians who are expected to keep watch over billions of dollars worth of expenditures. This is not good enough in my opinion and it’s why I wholeheartedly support the Premier’s initiative.

In Vancouver alone, we’ve recently witnessed millions of dollars being wasted on costly office upgrades, Olympic tickets for politicians and their spouses and untendered communication contracts.

In fact, rather than moving toward more stringent oversight of municipal spending, the governing Vision Vancouver caucus is making it easier for senior managers to spend tax dollars without any prior political approval.

I certainly hope the auditor general’s jurisdiction will also include the unelected and unaccountable government known as Metro Vancouver. They are responsible for spending billions of your municipal tax dollars and incredibly they face even less scrutiny than your local council.

When Metro Vancouver is not wasting tens of thousands of your tax dollars to send non-board members to obscure international conferences, it’s shelling out hundreds of millions more on major infrastructure projects.

One of those boondoggles was a new water filtration system which ended up costing taxpayers several hundred million more than was budgeted. The project ended up triggering a very costly lawsuit with a private construction firm.

Rather than oppose the concept of municipal auditor general, mayors and councilors should welcome the prospect of more openness and transparency at the local level. If Robertson is correct and there truly is no fat left to cut, he should have nothing to be worried about.

21 Comments

Absolutely agree. This should be the numer 1 election issue. Every candidate should be asked whether they support this.

Excellent idea. I agree 100%. Coupled with this should be legislative requirements for more detailed and transparent financial reporting from municipal governments. Compare Vancouver to Seattle,Portland San Fran even Vancouver Wa. Much more deatiled information provided to taxpayers detailing how taxes are spent but also employee headcount and related information. The jurisdition should extend to police and Parks Board as well. ( Note the VPD Board had not filed its Q2 report with Council which will no doubt show the OT variance arising from Robertson's Riot)

the municipalities are supposed to have 5 year financial plans- I have never seen one

Good luck trying to prize privilege from the hands of city employees. Consider the civil servants of the bankrupt Republic of Ireland who tenaciously retain their holidays to celebrate both the British Empire and the birthday of George V!

Bureaucratic bloat is a well known phenomenon, an historic example was shown in the early years of World War II when the British War Ministry had to be significantly reduced from its peacetime size for efficient operation. Even the most effective auditing is not as effective as having the Third Reich on the doorstep!

Anyone who takes the least interest in the way our city, province and country are run can see blatant examples of waste, inefficiency and misdirection of resources, much of it wilful. I might in your opinion be ignorant, Gregor, but I'm not blind.

Funnily enough, Vision Vanouver's George Chow has stated he supports it.

I guess he isn't afraid to speak his mind now that he is leaving.

Councillor George Chow may support Premier Clark's idea of a municipal auditor general but NDP candidate George Chow may be whipped into line.

NDP leader Adrian Dix has already said his caucus will oppose any measurement to bring more transparency and accountability to our local city hall. They are voting against muni AG. Wonder what Chow thinks?

Not only auditor but also and OMBUDSPERSON!

visionistas are afraid to put in the office of an Ombudsperson at the City Hall.

At the moment a citizen has to turn to the BC Ombudsperson for help.

Without our elected representatives having the right mindset, I am not convinced a municipal auditor would add anything other than more cost. And their reaction to John Cummins suggestion that perhaps additional funding for transit could come from reducing existing municipal budgets by 1% gave us a pretty good indication of their mindset - "we're already a lean mean machine so move along folks, no cost cutting to be had here".

Well you don't have to be an auditor to zero in on some questionable costs - just read the collective agreement. Some of my favourites from Vancouver:

- Gratuity days - don't miss a day for 4 months and you get an extra day off.

- Supplementary holidays - every 5 years after 10 years you get an extra five days vacation. So maximum time off in a bonus year for those at the top of the scale is 30 days regular plus 5 days supplementary plus 3 days gratuity plus 11 days statutory for a total of 49 days or almost 10 weeks. With perfect attendance you would also have earned 20 sick days which can be accumulated to 261 days.

- Employees Savings plan - the city matches employee contributions of 1.5% of salary - not as a part of pension but just a little extra savings. I know 1.5% is not a lot but all these "not a lots" begin to add up.

Remember, this contract was negotiated under an NPA majority council. Just wait for the next one under Vision.

Yes James, George does seem to have seen the light now he's got Provincial ambitions. Whip or no whip, George is astute enough to know he'd better get his neighbours onside if he wants to get elected. Interestingly, his sudden conversion highlights Vision hypocrisy doesn't it?

I welcome a civic auditor. If you have nothing to hide why would you not? Mayor Greg and Vision's emasculation of the City's Ombudsman is the perfect example of why that and the auditing functions need to be truly arms-length.

George Chow is a hypocrite. He is on his way out and now he needs some name recognition out there for things he would surely be against as a Vision councilor. To be more exact his words would translate into 'the best interest of his Vision cronies and against the best interest of the rest of Vancouver'. Three years of his middle finger salute are enough for us to realize that Vision & comp. are bunch of self serving crooks.

Very good points on the settlement between the City and CUPE when NPA was in power. I think that is why more detailed and transparent financial reporting is essential in regards to both annual and quarterly reports from the COV's finance department is essential; augmented by a municipal auditor general. Is NPA prepared to commit?

I seem to recall it was called "Sam's Strike" and he took a tremendous amount of heat because he was reluctant to settle. At that time Vision and COPE put on great pressure for the deal to be signed. So- who should own the rich terms of agreement?

Who is going to own this agreement?

One example of the need for a bit more information to be forthcoming on City budgeting is the Budget document itself. This years Vision Budget was 6 1/2 pages. The last NPA 2008 Budget was 249 pages.

Under Vision we don't know who's hiding what, or why?

Julia,

I linked to several 5 year financial plans-- it must be stuck in the queue... you said you have yet to see them but it took me about 10 seconds on google to find surrey's, burnaby's etc... are you even looking?

Bill,

I haven't looked closely at the budgets but quantity does not equal quality.

Boohoo, I google city of Vancouver financial plan and I get the Capital Plan (totally different animal). I am on to page 2 - still nothing.

perhaps you can help me out.

I don't know if anyone has glanced at 'awarded contracts' on the CoV site.

I just about spewed my coffee reading that 'we' spent almost $700K on web content.

The odd thing - reading the contracts up for tenders seem to overlap some of those already awarded.

But hey, Vision was in the hole $350K during the election period. If it wasn't for Solomon and others doing a massive paper shuffle of 'dollars', that debt would have taken longer to cover off.

If a party can't balance it's own budget, then why would we expect they can balance the city's?

there is absolutely no reason why we do not know what civic budgets on the expense side should be 3-5 years out. We know our labour rates, we know our programs... add in a formula that adjusts for inflation and population growth and we should have a good idea what we are facing each year instead of having this drama unfold every year around budget time.

On the revenue side, some items are fixed, some are variable. Plan for the low end. If there is extra revenue... great - squirrel it away to offset the following year.

Everyone I know, business or otherwise lives this way. Why can't the city?

With a 5 year operating plan - (and I am 99% sure it is required by the Charter) we can step back and decide as a community what our priorities are and what we must learn to live without if we want to keep our taxes in line.

The way we do it now is nothing short of hostage taking.

NPA candidates tend to go mute when the subject of cost containment comes up. Is any NPA candidate willing to answer the question:

"Are you willing to consider contracting some services out to the private sector if, all other things being equal, it resulted in cost savings to the city?"

Come on Boo, 6 1/2 pages vs. 249! This together with all the other shell game Vision has been playing. However, I take your point with the foregoing qualification. The City's finances can and do need to be more reader friendly. I will work to achieve that.

Oh, Boo

When I was young (many,many years ago) I had a budget that I drew up.
I had to because I was pretty broke (and had no people to fall back on ). I couldn't raise taxes for any shortfalls.

I believe it was 2 pages long.

I think it's quite likely a City would need more than 6 1/2 pages.

I am more interested in who gets the City business (with any political party).

What are taxpayers paying for?
Over priced goods that are awarded to city approved suppliers?

What are we paying for!

"I haven't looked closely at the budgets but quantity does not equal quality."

Very true. However, you aren't going to be able to explain what is included in each line of an almost $1 billion operating budget in 6.5 pages – no matter how small a font you use ;)

The problem they may have with giving more however, is that the more information they provide, the easier is it for someone to double check the validity. On the positive side, iIt also opens up the door to explore economies of scale. I would have to imagine there would be huge savings if for example, all municipalities grouped their purchasing needs of say copier paper together. They would probably be able to support a single paper mill. I think that is the part of the puzzle Gregor misses. He might not be able to find 1% to trim, but someone else may and may not be by cutting something out like he assumes – they may just make it more efficient.

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