When the provincial government appointed the Auditor General for Local Governments in 2011, I was a Councillor in the District of Central Saanich. The auditor was supposed to add value for local governments, but as we have learned this week, it appears the cost of the office has far outweighed its benefits.
I support "value for money" audits of local government operations and capital expenditures. I support the oversight and I welcome the opportunity to develop best practices from what is found in the audits. That said, I was troubled by the impetus that led the province to create the office of the Auditor General for Local Governments.
Local governments are financially stretched to deliver their programs and services as it is, and B.C. Mayors and Councillors have rightly clamoured for finance reform. The government’s response was that local governments didn’t need increased revenue, they needed to mind their wastefulness.
There is a problem with wastefulness, but the constant downloading of critical services from provincial and federal governments to local governments – effectively transferring the costs to property tax/rate payers – has added significant pressure to the cost of running a community.
The provincial government boasts that it is balancing budgets “while keeping taxes low”, but will not accept responsibility for its contribution to local government financial deficiencies through downloading. Local governments are required by legislation to balance their annual budgets, so property taxes and fees are increased to make up for it.
This week, we learned by way of the excellent work in Question Period of the B.C. NDP that the Office of the Local Government Auditor is in shambles. Only one audit has been released in two years, leaked reports of internal strife have surfaced and all at a $5.2 million price tag.
And that is just the Auditor’s costs; what about the costs to local governments? Audits cause significant stress for the organizations being audited, so at what expense are the staff diverted from their regular duties to meet the needs of an inefficient and ineffective auditor? The Auditor is planning to release 17 audits in the next several months and frankly, the confidence in the Office is all but lost.
The Local Government Auditor was supposed to be trusted to assess local government projects to ensure property taxpayers and ratepayers were getting good value for their dollars. What is the cost of the chaos?
Rather than make local governments more efficient, the province has established yet another obstacle. The performance in question period of the Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development did not reassure me that the situation was under control.
Increasing demands on local governments require a variety of solutions. Audits are one tool to identify wastefulness, but it is the relationship between the provincial and local governments that must evolve. British Columbians deserve an auditor who can hold our elected officials accountable. We need the provincial government to fix the mess in the auditor’s office and get on with addressing the unsustainable offloading of services to local governments.