B.C. considers city watchdog

Maple Ridge happy to open books, Pitt Meadows worries it will be more work for city staff



The B.C. government’s plan to appoint a municipal auditor-general has raised concerns in local government with councils worrying they’ll be told how to tax and spend.

Premier Christy Clark promised the oversight while running for the B.C. Liberal leadership. She proposed expanding the auditor-general’s office and to “review the municipal taxation formula.”

Both Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows have heard no details about the provincial governments plans but indicated reports on the auditor are being prepared for council when they return after the summer break.

The B.C. government took similar steps to oversee school districts, imposing common payroll and personnel systems on boards of education and appointing “superintendents of achievement” to monitor district efforts to raise student performance.

Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin has no problem with the province reviewing the district’s books.

“I’d just like equal access to theirs,” he said, with a laugh, but added that the people who complain about out-of-control tax increases should take a closer look at what’s actually on paper.

This year, taxes went up by 5.6 per cent for the average homeowner in Maple Ridge. The district’s overall tax bill is also among the lowest in the Lower Mainland.

“I think our budget process is very transparent. It is open,” Daykin added.

“What I would like to have is not only a chat with the guy doing the [auditor] work but the politicians who are putting it into place.”

Most home owners in Pitt Meadows saw a tax increase of around 5.95 per cent this year.

Pitt Meadows mayor Don MacLean worries the provincial auditor will saddle already busy city staff with more work.

Successive governments have downloaded more and more services onto municipalities, said MacLean, mentioning the greenhouse gas reduction requirements imposed by the province on cities.

“There may some a time when it just gets to be too much.”

But the minister responsible says an auditor won’t mean the province is going to start micro-managing municipalities.

Community, Sport and Cultural Development Minister Ida Chong met with the executive of the Union of B.C. Municipalities in late July to discuss the plan.

Chong said in an interview last week that B.C.’s municipal auditor won’t overrule local governments, but “performance audits” would highlight areas where communities can save money. The service will benefit to the 160 local governments in B.C., especially the smaller ones, she said.

“More than half of our municipalities have populations under 5,000,” Chong added. “They don’t have the capacity to do value-for-money audits or performance audits.”

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.

Chong said municipal tax rates wouldn’t be the first priority, but a municipal auditor general may choose to compare rates and their effect on industrial development.

The B.C. government has been critical in the past about the heavy tax burden some municipalities place on industrial property, especially in the struggling forest industry. The issue was studied before last year’s Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, where the B.C. government rejected a request to chip in $25 million in bridge financing for municipalities to reduce industrial tax rates.

Former finance minister Colin Hansen told the convention that high industrial taxes are a problem municipalities need to fix themselves.

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 Monisha Martins