Opinion

Stewart: Being mindful of the taxpayer

There’s an old saying among politicians that “there’s only one taxpayer.”

Whether specific tax dollars go to Ottawa, Victoria or various municipalities, taxpayers have a right to know they’re getting value for their money.

They have a right to know where their money goes, and how it’s spent.

The Auditor General for Local Government Act is a positive step in that direction.

The idea is to create an office that will conduct performance audits of local government operations, share best practices and ideas from other jurisdictions, and provide objective advice to help them be more efficient and effective.

This AGLG will not cost local governments a penny—in fact, the province will fund the AGLG office.

But this is not about increasing provincial supervision over local governments. It is about providing an independent opinion about the effectiveness, efficiency and economy of local government programs.

The NDP has argued that the Inspector of Municipalities can handle these duties. The inspector’s main role is to approve long-term capital borrowing and financial strategies for local government.

It would be a potential conflict of interest if the inspector were to approve borrowing for a project, and then judge whether the local government has implemented that project efficiently and effectively.

The Auditor General for Local Government, on the other hand, would be independent and offer objective, non-binding advice.

Local governments can then choose whether or not to heed this advice, based on what makes sense for their communities and the priorities of their citizens.

Property taxes increase for many reasons, but one of them is project cost overrun—the Auditor General for Local Government can help address that.

For a concrete example, consider West Kelowna’s Royal LePage Arena.

A few years ago, the Central Okanagan Regional District held a referendum to approve construction of an arena. The referendum set a borrowing limit of just under $3.3 million, on a construction budget of just over $5.1 million.

For a variety of reasons, the final cost ended up more than doubling, at over $12.7 million.

The project lacked adequate controls and clearly defined accountability; the public’s consent for the cost increases was not obtained; and success was not defined as “on budget.”

The District of West Kelowna, in reviewing this project, provided a report for council, “Lessons Learned From The building of Royal LePage Place,” available on the district’s website.

An Auditor General for Local Government could have reviewed this project and provided objective, independent advice during construction. In short, it could have saved money for taxpayers.

There are plenty of other examples of programs the AGLG could review, from garbage collection services to environmental conservation programs to fire services.

Each could be audited to see if it operates in the most cost-effective manner, if it achieves its objectives, and if it could be more efficiently organized.

Eliminating waste, sharing best practices, and keeping costs down: these aren’t partisan issues, but goals shared by every town, city, and municipal district.

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