Councillor pushes for Vancouver auditor-general
City is only the major urban centre in Canada without an office to review how tax dollars are spent, and Hardwick wants to change that
By KERRY GOLD
Friday, October 18, 2019 Print Edition, Page H4
VANCOUVER -- The City of Toronto has saved more than $300-million in a five-year period because of the work of an independent body that reviewed how taxpayer money was spent. With auditor-general office costs of $25.9-million, that's $11.70 saved for every dollar spent.
With the exception of Vancouver, every major city in Canada has an auditor-general that ensures taxpayers are getting their best value for their dollar and to ensure that city work is efficiently carried out by city staff, including outside contractors.
Vancouver Councillor Colleen Hardwick has introduced a motion to bring an auditor-general to Vancouver city hall, and she's been citing Toronto's example to try to persuade her fellow councilors to vote in favour of the idea.
Beverly Romeo-Beehler is the current auditor-general for Toronto and she focuses on performance audits. Her mandate is broad and includes areas such as transit, leasing, landfill, child care, forestry, construction, development permits, housing and safety. Her work goes beyond financial statements, which just keep score of money. She studies efficiencies, she says.
"The performance audit asks, 'What happened to that money and how was it spent?' " she explains. "If it's gone, did it achieve what they thought it would achieve? And if the money is there, are they investing it and making sure we are getting the best bang for our buck?" For example, her office looked at the 106,650 households on the waiting list for rent-geared-to-income housing and discovered that those most in need were not being given priority. They also found 1,400 social-housing units on average were sitting empty; some of them were being used by contractors as office or storage spaces, or awaiting upgrades instead of being used for emergency housing. The waste was needless.
"You have a housing crisis and people literally dying on the street. People were being housed in these semi-permanent tents that look like something out of the military. And we had empty units that were awaiting demolition, perfectly able to be used. It really opened my eyes," Ms. Romeo-Beehler says. "We have people on the ground out there seeing what is going on. We see the bullet holes. We are 100-per-cent boots on the ground,'with our staff taking photos and videos."
Another investigation found a high rate of fare evasion on streetcars and an overall loss of at least $61-million in 2018 alone.
In another case, the AG office used the Global Positioning System [GPS] logs of tree-pruning contractors to determine that they were billing the City for eight hours a day, when they were only working two hours a day.
The office also discovered that a contractor providing fire safety inspections for major public buildings was not doing the work.
In fact, the person named as the president of the company didn't even exist and neither did the manager in charge of the contract. After a forensic investigation, Ms. Romeo-Beehler found that the City couldn't verify if the more than $900,000 worth of work billed over several years had even been carried out. The case resulted in 58 fire code charges.
City staff and their dependents were also found to be billing millions of dollars in benefits for opioids and other controlled substances, as well as erectile dysfunction medication.
Ms. Romeo-Beehler says Vancouver would greatly benefit from an AG office as well as a tips hotline. Many tips come to her by the existing Fraud and Waste Hotline, but she's also pro-actively addressing key issues that go unnoticed, she says. The AG conducts an investigation and then reports to city council with recommendations. She says she does follow-ups within 18 months to make sure that changes have been implemented.
"We don't determine policy. It's council as an elected body that says, 'We want developers to pay X or put this much in the kitty to fix the streets,' or whatever council says is supreme. They decide.
We make sure management who's carrying it out, does exactly, what council wants them to do and we look at developers and policies and we can ask them for records and we can summon records. We can hold inquiries. An AG has very broad powers."
Ms. Romeo-Beehler has briefed Vancouver city councilors as part of the motion put forward by Ms. Hardwick, who wrote a nine-page report on the role of the auditor-general and estimates the new office would require a budget of about $1-million. That motion will be the topic of discussion at a committee meeting on Oct. 23. It was supposed to be heard a week ago, but Ms. Hardwick was recovering from a car accident.
"God willing I get the votes, because I see this as the single most important motion that I will bring forward," she says.
"This is about performance audits on a wide variety of different areas. For example, 'Why are we spending money putting a greenway down the middle of Granville Bridge? Would that money be better spent in another area?' Those are the kinds of questions that can be answered."
Another area for review she says might be the city's reliance on developer tax levies, such as community amenity contributions.
Cities conduct internal audits, but the auditor-general is different from an internal auditor because the AG is entirely independent of government and has more powers. The AG can access all documents, hold inquiries and examine people under oath.
Ms. Romeo-Beehler says independence is vital. City staff members can't drop by for a chat. As well, auditor-generals in Ontario typically serve terms in order to ensure that they maintain their autonomy.
Stephen Holyday, Toronto deputy mayor, council member and chair of the audit committee, says having the AG report back to council on her findings inspires confidence from the general public.
"For many years we heard about thousands of people on the waiting list for housing and that audit helped us understand that they were sitting in limbo because we couldn't 'get to them,' " Mr. Holyday says. "We learned that the way they were sequenced or prioritized could be done better.
"An auditor finds things that aren't noticed, or things that need to be brought to light and brings them to council, and that's a very important process, that independence," Mr. Holyday says.
Because the AGs in Ontario and other provinces have a successful track record of achieving value-for-money, city governments have generally embraced their role. Ken Hughes, AG for the City of Ottawa, says it's generally accepted that for every dollar spent on an AG, the savings are between $7 to $21.
"I have to tell you, it's a little hard to believe that a city the size of Vancouver doesn't have one," Mr. Hughes says.
As with all auditor-generals, Mr. Hughes is an accountant. He works with a budget of almost $2million with a staff of 10 people.
Ottawa has a population of one million, compared with Vancouver's 700,000. It also has a much bigger operating budget. One of their major investigations revealed abuse at a city-owned seniors' facility that came to him through the anonymous tip-line.
"We take great pride in what we do and it isn't about catching staff out for poor performance.
It's just about making sure that the city is getting maximum value for the money that it's spending," Mr. Hughes says. An AG can serve the city staff, too, because they could look into workplace bullying, for example.
He says an independent set of eyes taking a look at management simply makes for better governance. The AG can offer an important break with the status quo.
"If you have got a situation where you have a very strong mayor or a very strong group of politicians who've been in for a long time, the relationship between those politicians and that staff over time could be impaired and all the more reason why you should have somebody independent who's able to look at the various issues."
Nobody likes having someone look over his or her shoulder, he adds.
"You do have to be conscious of the fact that 99.9 per cent of the staff come into work every day with the intention of delivering the best service they can to the citizens."
Beverly Romeo-Beehler, the current auditor-general for Toronto, says her job is not to determine policy but to ensure that taxpayer money was spent in the ways it was intended.