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.