Comox Valley governments prepare to be audited

A new Auditor General for Local Government will probe the spending habits of B.C. municipalities and regional districts in coming months.

A new Auditor General for Local Government will probe the spending habits of B.C. municipalities and regional districts in the months to come.

By the end of April, Basia Ruta plans to initiate audits and deliver non-binding recommendations to help improve local government efficiency and effectiveness. Procurement procedures and policing costs, for example, could be examined simultaneously among multiple cities. Other topics include infrastructure sustainability and environmental issues.

Ruta intends to meet municipal representatives, financial executives, chambers of commerce and other stakeholders before formulating a service plan and deciding on initial audits within the first 100 days.

Mayor Paul Ives is not anticipating any issues with the “value for money” audits that might, for instance, compare spending on public works in Comox to other communities.

“The challenge, I think, will be each community runs their services in slightly different ways,” Ives said.

Garbage collection, for example, is mostly through private contractors in the Valley whereas city staff collect garbage in Victoria.

Another example is policing costs, which represent about 10 per cent of the budget in Comox, paying the salaries of 10 police officers. Courtenay, Ives added, pays for upwards of 28 officers.

“That’s one area I think would be interesting to see,” he said. “In some circles, people feel that the (police) cost increases are becoming unsustainable.”

In Comox, the cost is $120,000 to $130,000 per constable or other position. While council has considered adding another police officer every few years, Ives notes the town is experiencing a decline in crime rates.

Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula — a former police officer — feels audits should be conducted randomly and without warning.

“What possible business in the world never gets audited?” he said. “If you have nothing to hide, why would one worry about that?”

During his policing days, Jangula recalls the RCMP detachment being audited on the exhibit ledger, financials and record keeping.

“I’m very confident that we run a good operation here,” Jangula said of the City of Courtenay. “Does that mean we can’t possibly do things a bit better? There’s always that possibility.”

Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird is concerned about staff time if Ruta decides to pay the Village a visit. She notes the finance department is already stretched to the limit.

“We already do an audit every year, of course,” Baird said. “It’s going to be, I think, hard for her because municipalities are different and they require different things. With us, it’s our infrastructure that needs attention, and in other communities that might not be the issue.”

Some B.C. cities have objected to the AGLG’s creation, fearing audits could turn into a witch hunt for waste that fail to take into account differing municipal priorities, and that might duplicate existing audits at their expense. Business groups, including the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, pushed for the new watchdog.

“Whenever somebody comes in with a different viewpoint, if you can find something that we can do that is better than what we are doing, I’m receptive to that,” Baird said. “You have to keep an open mind. You might find something that we should be doing differently.”

The Comox Valley Regional District — which works with external auditors including BDO Canada, Revenue Canada and WCB — looks forward to working with the auditor’s office if selected for a review. CAO Debra Oakman said the audits “will bring yet another perspective of how we may do things more efficiently.”

With a file from Black Press