Municipal auditor plan ruffles feathers

The B.C. government's plan to appoint a municipal auditor-general has raised concerns in local government circles, but the minister responsible says it won't mean the province is going to start telling local councils how to tax and spend money.

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VICTORIA – The B.C. government’s plan to appoint a municipal auditor-general has raised concerns in local government circles, but the minister responsible says it won’t mean the province is going to start telling local councils how to tax and spend money.

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. According to a summary sent by the UBCM to its member councils, the UBCM executive complained about the lack of consultation and asked Chong if local councils’ policy decisions would be exempt from a municipal auditor’s authority, as they are in other jurisdictions.

Chong said in an interview Wednesday 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 said. “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.

Premier Christy Clark promised a municipal auditor general while running for the B.C. Liberal leadership. Her platform promised to expand the provincial auditor-general’s office to include a municipal auditor, and to “review the municipal taxation formula.”

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.

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.

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