The province is serving up municipal audits with either a slice of financial transparency or a hidden agenda on the side.
Those were the mixed reviews two South Okanagan mayors offered in light of the B.C. government’s plan to appoint a municipal auditor general in charge of reviewing financial line items like grants and taxation formulas for residents and businesses of cities, towns and villages.
“The economic times have been challenging. We’re doing our best, but in my opinion, I think an overview sometimes on how business is being conducted is good,” Penticton Mayor Dan Ashton said.
“The economies of the whole world these days are a bit tenuous. I was brought up to think, ‘If you look after the pennies, the dollars will follow.’”
Community, Sport and Cultural Development Minister Ida Chong said in an interview last week that B.C.’s municipal auditor won’t overrule local government decisions, but “performance audits” would highlight areas where communities can save money. The service will be a benefit to the 160 local governments, especially the smaller ones, she said.
“More than half of our municipalities have populations under 5,000,” Chong said. “They don’t have the capacity to do value-for-money audits or performance audits.”
Oliver Mayor Pat Hampson, however, said his municipal hall has four people working in the finance department who don’t have time to work with ministry staff or consultants looking to review their books.
“Come taxation time, they’re run off their feet,” he said. “We are already an organization which is audited. We’re obliged to have an annual audit of our books. So as far as the actual expenditures are concerned, everything that we do, every bill that we pay, literally every dollar that we bring in is audited by independent auditors.”
Hampson said smaller municipalities have less offerings and expenditures than larger cities, leaving less wiggle room for inefficiency to creep in.
“I just can’t imagine what it is that they think we need to do better. I just can’t fathom it. The province is a level of government that has the ability to exceed their budget, and we have to balance ours. We can only spend as much as we declare we need and tax for,” Hampson said. “To me, it’s another level of bureaucracy.”
Chong met with the executive of the Union of B.C. Municipalities in late July to discuss the plan. According to a summary sent by the UBCM to its member councils, the UBCM executive complained about the lack of consultation and asked Chong if local councils’ policy decisions would be exempt from a municipal auditor’s authority, as they are in other jurisdictions.
Smaller communities also receive unconditional grants from the province, and a municipal auditor-general would check whether they are spent effectively. All municipalities get federal and provincial cost-sharing grants for major projects, and an auditor-general could compare a group of communities to see which ones are more efficient.
For Hampson, there’s no easy answer to resolving higher business tax rates, which would leave the new provincial audit a make-work exercise.
“To me it’s almost a desire on the part of the new premier to show that the government is on top of what’s going on in the province,” he said. “Over and above monitoring us to be seen to be monitoring us, I really cannot understand what the government thinks should be done.
“It bothers me that there was no dialogue first as to whether or not we needed it. We were just suddenly told that this was going to be happening.”
Chong’s office has sent out a survey to municipalities and regional districts across B.C. The survey asks municipalities if an auditor should have authority over other local bodies as well.
With files from Tom Fletcher