The Road to Accountability and Transparency

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On December 9th 2016, David Poluck and Lorna Rudolph, on behalf of the Sault Association of Ratepayers, submitted a written request to City Clerk Malcolm White, seeking to be added to the Council agenda for the first meeting in 2017, in order to make a short presentation and share information with regard to Part V.1 of the Ontario Municipal Act.

Rationale

Since the Municipal Act was first passed into law in 2001, it has been possible for City Council to establish: a Code of Conduct for members of Council and Local Board members, an Integrity Commissioner, a Municipal Ombudsman, an Auditor General, and a Lobby Registry/Registrar.

In 2010, City Council passed a Code of Conduct for members of Council and Local Board members, but has not taken any action to date on the creation of the four positions that would serve to enhance Accountability and Transparency for the citizens of this Municipality.

Amendments to the Municipal Act, which are currently in Second Reading Debate at Queen’s Park, and will likely pass into law, state that if a municipality has not appointed an Integrity Commissioner by the time these amendments pass, those responsibilities will be handed over to the Integrity Commissioner of another municipality (Section 233.3.1 of Bill 68, currently in Second Debate Reading).

In summary, the Sault Association of Ratepayers would like to play a partnership role in assisting City Council to move forward with Transparency and Accountability, and provide public input into the process so that Sault Ste. Marie can take a leadership role in these areas, rather than wait for change to be imposed upon us.

The Bigger Picture

The proposed amendments to the Municipal Act currently seem to focus primarily on implementation of the Integrity Commissioner’s role, but the Sault Association of Ratepayers remains dedicated to promoting the creation of a Municipal Ombudsman, and Auditor General, and a Lobby Registrar as well. All of these positions work together in unison, to ensure that the taxpayer’s and citizens of a municipality are ensured a transparent and accountable municipal government.

Some members of the public may question, and rightfully so, whether the creation of more positions that deal with municipal affairs, and the costs that are associated with them, are necessary or reasonable. The perception of ‘bigger government’ can invoke a negative reaction from the public, and this is understandable. However, the Sault Association of Ratepayers would like to remind the public that if created, these would not likely result in full salaried positions for our city alone. They would operate independently and separated from City Council, and likely be shared among multiple municipalities, so that any costs associated with them will be mitigated. And if implemented correctly, these roles may serve to save taxpayers money, by ensuring proper stewardship of the public purse and public interest.

Case in Point

On December 5th, 2016, City Council approved the 2017 Municipal Budget, resulting in a 4.34% levy hike for local taxpayers. Excellent reporting by David Helwig reveals that City Council intends to implement this tax hike on the beginning of City hall’s fiscal new year, which starts on January 1, 2017, even though traditionally, the budgets aren’t passed until April of each year.

If City Council does indeed implement a tax hike on January 1st, this will mean that the 2016 ‘annual’ budget was actually only nine months long, since it was passed on March 23rd, 2016. Is this an acceptable practice by City Council? Is this ethical? Imagine a car dealership increasing your payments for the final year of a four year car loan – would you cry foul? This is essentially what City Hall is doing, increasing your tax rates 3/4 of the way through an ‘annual’ budget.

But it gets even more troubling. Mr Helwig reported that the tax increase for 2017 might actually be larger than the 4.34% reported, because the DSSMSSAB (Social Services Administration Board) has not finalized its budget yet. So, why did City Council rush to pass this budget so quickly, when the true cost to taxpayers is not yet known?

And further to all of this, is the fact that City Council is moving forward with the 2017 budget, in full anticipation of being fully paid the taxes owed by Essar Steel. The issue is before the courts, and there is no guarantee of full payment. Yet, City Hall is moving forward as if full payment is assured. Is this good stewardship of our fiscal integrity?

The fact is, there was no need for City Council to rush this budget. To increase taxes before a full year has elapsed in the current annual budget is ethically questionable. To push forward with a budget prematurely, with so many unknown variables in play, appears reckless. What harm would it have done to wait, for perhaps news from the courts on the Essar taxes owed, or until the  DSSMSSAB has a chance to provide input? How can the taxpayer’s be assured that a 4.34% increase in the levy is a fair and reasonable expectation on taxpayers, when so much remains unknown?

If Sault Ste. Marie had an Auditor General in place, average citizens might have the ability to get some answers, and take some action. The Sault Association of Ratepayers would like to remind the public that a 1% increase in the municipal levy represents roughly $1,000,000 in taxpayer funds. In 2017, roughly $4,000,000 will be taken out of the local economy and fed into city coffers. Is this fair and reasonable? Is city Council acting in a financially responsible manner? Where is the Accountability and Transparency from City Hall on our behalf?

Conclusion

A full 15 years has passed, since it became possible for City Hall to put in place the positions that could assure accountability and transparency for our citizens. To date, the only action taken by Council has been to implement a Code of Conduct that stands alone, and serves as an internal function that does not allow for public input. It is unknown if the Code of Conduct has ever been utilized.

It is time now, in the face of economic adversity, in the wake of rising taxes and cuts to public services, to do the necessary work, to embrace the critical challenges, to put in place the mechanisms and agents for change, that will guarantee good stewardship of our municipal government for generations to come. The Sault Association of Ratepayers stands ready to play its role in facilitating the change that is needed, and looks forward to engaging in meaningful discussion with City Council, if granted an audience.