The parliamentary secretary to Premier Christie Clark may feel the appointment of an municipal auditor-general will be good for smaller municipalities, but local mayors disagree.
Chilliwack Liberal MLA John Les, a former mayor and former president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, says all elected officials, no matter what level, can benefit from financial oversight.
“This (municipal auditor general) office, particularly for smaller municipalities, can provide real value,” said Les in defending the new position.
But local mayors James Baker of Lake Country, Keith Fielding of Peachland, Doug Findlater of West Kelowna and Sharon Shepherd of Kelowna all question the need for such a position in B.C. given that there are already stringent rules in place governing the reporting of municipal finances.
Those rules include mandatory audits and the prohibition of budget deficits and the requirement that provincial permission be received in order to borrow large amounts of money.
“This appears to be a solution in search of a problem,” said Baker, echoing a position paper on the proposal issued by the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
“I’m not really sure why it is necessary or what is the reason for it.”
Like Fielding, Findlater and Shepherd, Baker said he feels municipalities are already prudent with their finances, noting each year a limited number of demands for additional services, infrastructure and facilities can be met because of financial constraints.
“We’d would love to provide everything people want but we can’t. We have to budget within our means.”
And it is not just small municipalities that are questioning the need for the a municipal auditor general.
Shepherd, whose city is the ninth largest in B.C. and the biggest outside of the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, agrees with the trio of local smaller community mayors.
“It’s hard to comment because we don’t know what the rationale is for this,” she said.
But she added the issue is certain to be discussed at the next UBCM meeting in September.
As the chairwoman of her city’s audit committee, Shepherd sees first hand what she calls the “very stringent” accounting practices her city has to follow.
“Is this (proposal) setting up another department that will prove costly for all taxpayers?” she asked.
The Central Okanagan Regional District board, on which all four mayors sit, has also come out against the proposal.
The Union of B.C. Municipalities paper notes the many measures currently in place when it comes to keeping municipal finances in check, including statutory responsibilities and limits, mandatory audits, requirements for open meetings, and open financial and performance reporting, annual reports, wage and salary reports, financial plan consultation with the public and existing third-party oversight by B.C.’s ombudsman, inspector of municipalities and officials with the community ministry.
Fielding said in addition to creating another level of bureaucracy, the new proposal has municipalities concerned about potential interference in how municipalities spend their money.
“The word ‘meddling’ comes to mind, doesn’t it,” said the Peachland mayor.
Findlater, whose council “took a pass” on the issue when it came to it for comment, said his personal view is that the province would do better strengthening the existing audit process for municipalities rather than creating a new level of bureaucracy.
That, he said, could be done with chartered accountants and certified general accountants.
In addition to municipal politicians being against the plan—which was first announced by Clark during her run for leadership of the B.C. Liberal Party—the NDP has come out against it as well.
But the NDP’s opposition was slammed by Les, who said when current NDP leader Adrian Dix was chief of staff to former premier Glen Clark, that government had eight consecutive deficit budgets.
“Good management of taxpayer money is not in the NDP psyche,” said Les.
“So, it’s hardly surprising they would reject a look at how tax dollars are spent at the local level.”