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New AG: waste of money or good governing?

The B.C. government's newly created position of auditor general for local governments has drawn some local criticism and praise. Basia Ruta, a former assistant deputy minister for Environment Canada, will fill the new role.

The B.C. government's newly created position of auditor general for local governments has drawn some local criticism and praise. Basia Ruta, a former assistant deputy minister for Environment Canada, will fill the new role.

The position was created to oversee local government spending. But some municipalities, such as Burnaby, see the new role as unnecessary interference.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan has spoken out against the idea since it was first introduced, saying it is a waste of resources.

But Richard Lee, the Liberal MLA for Burnaby North, insisted in an interview with the NOW that the new auditor position was established to help, not hinder, local governments.

"I think the idea is to help the municipalities, to do some sort of performance audit," Lee said, adding municipalities will be given ideas of how to better spend tax dollars.

"But it's not binding," he said. "They don't have to follow it, but if they don't, probably some questions will arise about why not."

Other levels of government already have auditor generals, he said.

And in the end, financial oversight will benefit residents of those municipalities, Lee added.

"The benefit will be to the taxpayer, because if the tax dollars are used effectively and efficiently, then the services will be better for the taxpayers," Lee said.

Corrigan said the provincial government should listen to its own auditor-general instead of shifting the focus onto municipalities.

"We already have annual audits," he said. "We're required to produce a

balanced budget, and we're up for election every three years."

The B.C. government has an inspector of municipalities within the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, he pointed out.

"He never did anything. There were never any inspections," Corrigan added. "Now, because its politically opportune, they are instituting a brand new office, which just seems the height of hypocrisy to me."

Corrigan said he is concerned about what the criteria for audits will be - whether it'll be on a complaint basis, or if the provincial government will decide which municipalities to target.

If there is a switch of government this spring and the New Democratic Party wins the May election, there's the possibility the position could be eliminated, as the NDP was opposed to it when it was created, Corrigan said.

"I don't know what they're going to do now that the office is existing," he said. "It's always difficult to unring a bell.

"Obviously I'll continue to lobby that they get rid of it, or if they don't get rid of it at least they make it as efficient as possible, so that there isn't any additional cost to the taxpayer," Corrigan said.

The British Columbia Chamber of Commerce pushed for the municipal auditor position to be created for years, according to president and CEO John Winter.

"We've had a policy for a number of years that calls for some reforms within the local government environment and concerns that the business community was picking up more than its fair share of revenue shortfalls in local governments," he said. "As a result, we were trying to find ways and means to help local governments through some of their dilemmas, and we felt this would be a useful tool."

The chamber has been concerned that tax increases have shifted onto businesses more and more since the B.C. Community Charter was established in 2004, he said.

Before the charter was established, the division of taxes between businesses and homeowners was about two to one, Winter said.

The charter was created by the provincial government to give municipalities more autonomy, including over taxation, though Burnaby city council has said that has not been the result.

"Businesses use far less of local government services than do homeowners, but they pay more for that," Winter said. "They're prepared to do that, but I don't think we're prepared to pay in seven-or eight-to-one ratios that are currently in practice."

Municipalities need to look at the amount of money put into established programs, and into municipal human resource departments, Winter said.

He agreed with Lee that the position is intended to assist municipalities in decision-making.

"This is not meant to be an insertion into the management of their affairs, this is meant to be a resource or an asset that they can count on to help them," Winter said.

Raj Chouhan, NDP MLA for Burnaby-Edmonds, was not able to speak for the party on the matter during an interview last month, but said Burnaby was not in need of more oversight.

"Speaking strictly from Burnaby's point of view, we must not forget that Burnaby won the best-run city award, a national award, a few years ago, so I don't know what more an auditor general can do to help a city like Burnaby," he said. "But I'm sure, knowing Mayor Derek Corrigan, he won't oppose any individual who wants to come and look at his books.

"Our city is already very well-run," he added. "There's no issue of accountability that we have seen here."

Ruta is slated to start her five-ear term in January.