Yes, it’s time for a municipal auditor general

Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Watching the controversy around this year’s St. John’s City Hall budget, I scratch my head and wonder how did they get it all so wrong.
Appraisals rise by an average of 15 per cent for homes and 20 per cent for commercial properties, the city drops the mill rate to only partially compensate, but such that there is still a real increase in taxes. This has been going on for years. And now those birds are coming home to roost.

The cold reality is that the city is trapped in a structural cycle of ever-ballooning expenses that can only be met through ever-increasing taxes. City expenses are expanding faster than the city is growing and faster than the level of property appraisals.

There is no incentive in the city to bring costs under control. The city budget process sets expense levels and then sets the tax rate to pay for it. This is the opposite of how private people and businesses set their budget. We have to make do with our income and then set our expenses accordingly.

Worst of all is council’s response to public pressure for change which makes a mockery of any claim or pretense to municipal prudent fiscal planning. First it was the arts community demanding resumption of their funding and now it’s the business community calling for a reversal of the tax hike.

Unless there is a continuous exertion of political will by council to keep expenses under control, they will continue to spiral upwards. It’s clear from recent budgets that council cannot be counted on to exert that political will.

The very structure of council assures that back room negotiations and deal-making will push expenses ever-upward with members of council reluctant to ring the alarm bell on fiscal irresponsibility for fear of damaging those relationships and losing funding for their pet projects.

This is different from the House of Assembly where the Opposition and House officers like the auditor general work to keep government responsible. At city council, it’s clear that because every councillor is responsible, no councillor is responsible.

But that can change. The city of St. John’s is the largest public institution in the province still not subject to scrutiny by an autonomous auditor general. A municipal auditor general outside of council control with the power of independent investigation and the mandate to share its findings with the citizens and taxpayers of St. Johns would go a long way to improve transparency and accountability at city hall.

Wouldn’t it be nice to receive regular independent reviews of city spending and operations with recommendations on how to improve the way the city spends taxpayers’ money?

Nova Scotia has a province-wide system of municipal auditors general. Responsible cities across Canada have taken the initiative to create their own offices of municipal auditors general, including Toronto.

Council claims they already are already audited but that is a misleading peace of disingenuous misdirection. Corporate-style audits, as council now has, ensure only that the city keeps its books accurately. That’s a far cry from public sector, value for money audits that examine how money is spent and the effectiveness of spending policies.

This is no time for council to be defensive and cling to old ways of operating. The St. John’s municipal budget now exceeds $300 million a year. If we are a great city, let’s act like one and be open to an independent public sector audit. Right now, St. John’s is a medium-sized city with the governance of a small village.

Taxpayers need to have confidence that we get value for money and the best possible services we deserve. A move by this council to install an autonomous municipal auditor general can help restore that confidence.


Simon Lono

St. John’s

Organizations: Opposition and House

Geographic location: Nova Scotia, Canada

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page



Recent comments

  • Mark H
    January 21, 2016 - 15:06

    The function of the position is what's important, not what it's called. We need a position with the authority to audit and report on the effectiveness of the spending of taxpayers money by the municipalities. Here in Mount Pearl there isn't ever anything that resembles a debate in the council chamber..... all of the decisions seem to have been made before the meetings and they only have the meeting to vote. It's kind of like a theatre performance where they all pat each other on the back and ask each other silly questions that they already know the answer to. The 2016 Mount Pearl budget increases tax collection (Residential, Commercial and Business) by 11.8% over 2015. Within expenditure categories.... Corporate Services +16.6%, Employee Benefits & Payroll Burden +24.8%, Roads and Streets +24.8%, Parks and Playgrounds +32%, Administration +84.5%. And was there any explanation for these huge increases in the council chamber? No. Provided to the public anywhere? No. How does the public find out? Some may make individual requests but broad base of the public will never know or find out if our tax dollars are being spent effectively without the intervention of an auditor or "watchdog".

  • ROK
    January 21, 2016 - 14:01

    I've been advocating for a Municipal Auditor General in CBS for years.

  • Mugsy and Rocco
    January 21, 2016 - 13:19

    We don't need no general to tell us our city hall has messed up this budget or that buying back land the city used to own from Danny Williams are good use of taxpayer money. We already know it.

  • Lillian
    January 21, 2016 - 12:38

    What has Simon's win-loss record in politics got to do with the merits of his argument? His comments - like yours - stand on their own merits. His are entirely valid and supported by fact; yours sound like they're coming from a councillor who doesn't like being put under the lights.

  • Kev
    January 21, 2016 - 12:32

    Chafe, you do not understand the role of an auditor-general. Amazing to see all the Tory and Townie stooges rushing out to shoot the messenger, as it's always the case with Simon Lono.

  • Chafe
    January 21, 2016 - 12:24

    The City's books are audited by professional accountants onstaff and contractually. Just bring in a resolution that they must be made public entirely. No need to hire someone to oversee it, the public and media already know how to read and think for themselves if they are receiving good value.

  • Samuel J.
    January 21, 2016 - 12:01

    Well said Simon. The checks and balances that exist at the provincial and federal levels, inadequate at times they may be, have no parallel at the city level. It invites and tolerates a mindset that is arrogant and abusive toward taxpayers.

  • Michael
    January 21, 2016 - 11:49

    How many times has Simon Lono lost or bailed out on a Council seat bid, 2 or 3 times now. Yet he continues to think his thoughts are important when they clearly are not. If we do not like the financial management practices of a Council, then in due course we will have the option of voting all of them out in the next election. You don't need an auditor general for that.

  • KD
    January 21, 2016 - 11:41

    Simon All municipalities in NL. should be accountable to an auditor where I currently live it seems every worker has a vehicle to use in the line at tims ferrying relatives around to school etc at the taxpayers expense.

  • Observer
    January 21, 2016 - 09:50

    Also in Toronto, the budget debate is ongoing and very public for weeks and months at a time. I am under the impression that budget decisions are made behind closed doors in St. John's and, if that is so, it is a disgrace. Why are budget details not open and transparent to all citizens before council members adopt them? I know St. John's is not Toronto, with its multi billion dollar budget, but total scrutiny is required nonetheless. Scrutiny has been totally absent and that is why an Auditor general is so badly needed, as is open and transparent debate within a doors- open council chamber. Citizens should be outraged at what goes on at the municipal level of government. That outrage seems to be a growing chorus. Toronto also has a real mayor who advocates for his city 24, 7, not councillors who stand in for the elected one, but that's another story.....

  • Why
    January 21, 2016 - 09:30

    No. Why should they need an auditor?? They have one for the statements but he/she doesn't judge how many is spent. That's the job of our councillors. If they are not doing it, out they go the next election.

    • Frank Holden
      January 21, 2016 - 11:00

      Mr Lono is right, but only if we get impartial auditing with the power to regulate St. John's City Council. Without any powers it will be just another expense charged to us. What Power anywhere willingly appoints anyone above themselves to whom they must then submit? As for voting them out: What good has that ever done? Does it matter who gets to sit in the musical chairs for a few years if nothing changes?. It doesn't matter who we vote in or out if none of them are accountable to us. While they're in power they can enrich the profiteers with our money and secret away "presents and futures" for themselves. After that, they don't care if you vote them out. The incoming newly elected ones will do the same if not held accountable. All levels of government in our mock democracy thus succeed in minimizing our votes to nothing. Once we realize our votes count for nothing , we may wake up and demand democracy and accountability. Power concedes nothing until demanded, commanded. It never did and it never will, Frank Holden, St. John's.

    • Why
      January 21, 2016 - 14:53

      To Frank Holden ... it's pretty sad we vote them in ... and lots of time more than once. Maybe we need more advance notice as to what they plan on spending so the taxpayers can judge.

  • jerome
    January 21, 2016 - 08:38

    G Hollett, yes the Auditor General has no legal powers but the do have embarrassment powers, which may be the most effective power of all. This council doesn't listen to the taxpayers , but with the embarrassment of an audit, they may address their waste of taxpayer funding.

  • JS
    January 21, 2016 - 07:34

    I totally agree Simon Lono...the City Council should be Audited.

  • G Hollett
    January 21, 2016 - 07:03

    Auditors General have no legal powers to make the public entities they report on conform to their audits. So, during this time of financial downturn and public finance deficits, the creation of another taxpayer funded bureaucrat with no authority is not what is needed.