B.C.'s local auditor-general gets OK welcome from Cowichan mayors

Phil Kent is lukewarm about the province
Phil Kent is lukewarm about the province's decision to create the position of municipal auditor.
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Cowichan mayors were cautiously optimistic B.C.'s new local government auditor-general will help snuff waste spending in stuff such as garbage collection, staffing and roadwork to sewer projects and buying vehicles.

"I suppose having more of that accountability is useful," Duncan Mayor Phil Kent said of Basia Ruta's duties starting in January.

"I'm not sure of the mechanism the province has chosen to do it. I thought it would be a better tactic to have performance audits done where everyone would take on responsibility through their auditing processes — that would be more streamlined."

Jon Lefebure, North Cowichan's mayor, was also upbeat about Victoria's auditing of cities and regional boards to boost buck efficiencies in .

"I think it has potential to be good for any municipality," he said of Ruta, who'll earn about $200,000 a year.

He also believed Ruta couldn't order council to, for instance, cut Crofton mill's taxes.

"That's separate from the AG. In that case, the courts said our tax rates for the mill seem unfairly high, but we do have the right to set rates as we see fit," Lefebure said, stressing Ruta's role is reviewing local spending.

"It's meant to make recommendations to municipalities about where they can improve their performance. My understanding is you can request an audit, but I'm not sure who'll pay for her to look at your operation, in terms of efficiency."

If Victoria pays, more local governments will sign on, he said, noting North Cowichan's benchmarking studies could point to places for money-saving AG audits.

"It's a sort of performance audit. These audits aren't cheap."

Premier Christy Clark has promised there would be no costs passed to local governments to run Ruta's office.

Ruta's department will work with $1.18 million in annual salaries and benefits. There is also $1.42 million for operating expenses, travel, information systems, and corporate services, plus $300,000 for other bills.

The new AG's post caused a stir among local politicians, fearing bureaucracy, when Clark made it part of her leadership bid for B.C.'s Liberal Party, he noted.

"Her platform promised to expand the provincial auditor-general's office to include a municipal auditor, and to review the municipal taxation formula."

Kent hoped the new layer of bureaucracy is worth the cost.

"It's unclear what the government was looking for. They say they wouldn't audit policies or redo decisions, so I'm not sure," he said, reckoning random audits could help ferret waste.

"The Island Coastal Economic Trust was audited. Those are good things," said Kent, noting Duncan's books are audited annually.

"We'll see. It'll take a few years to see if there are things we can improve on. it's probably useful."

Kent said Ruta's staff may root out best practices for all city councils to follow.

Lefebure said his council might request auditing by Ruta, though North Cowichan staff is already doing benchmark probes to lift lids on spending waste.

"Take garbage collection. We look at cost person and compare that with other similar-size municipalities and see how we're doing. If a red flag comes up and service costing us more than other municipalities, that would be the kind of thing we'd want to do further review on — and if we can get some help from a provincial auditor, we might take it."

Lefebure was unaware of any areas of taxpayer waste.

"If there was one, we'd be on it like a shot. That's the purpose of benchmarking, in case we missed one."

Ruta has worked in the federal Auditor General's office, as Environment Canada's chief financial officer, plus in private practice auditing local government, hospital and community organizations.

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