Nearly 8 years ago I had an opportunity to attend an AIMS (Atlantic Institute of Market Studies) presentation on the 2007 Local Government Performance Index (The Financial Analysis of 30 Canadian Cities). The guest speaker was Larry Mitchell, a senior CA with more than 30 years experience in accounting, commerce, local government practice and policy. Mitchell was born in Canada but at the time lived in New Zealand.
I had an opportunity to talk to him both about the transformation in New Zealand, and in particular the challenges New Zealand municipalities faced during the mid-1980s. During the conversation I had an opportunity to talk to him about some of the challenges we were facing in Saint John: infrastructure, population outward migration, high property tax rate and the high poverty rate. That was seven years ago and in a number of areas we have gone from bad to worse.
Mr. Mitchell was a CA with a major accounting firm in New Zealand in 1986 when the country was on the verge of bankruptcy. The newly elected Labour Government, realizing the seriousness of the situation, quickly put in place legislation that dictated performance and accounting standards at both the federal and for all municipalities. All municipalities were required to use GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles). By using these standards as well as the Local Government Performance Index it became possible to measure, compare and track with reasonable accuracy all elements: revenue, assets, capital expenditures, etc. for all departments. Municipalities knew how they rated in terms of the effectiveness and efficiency of all municipal operations. Councilors had the necessary information and tools to do the job they were elected to do.
The order of the day quickly shifted from budget-driven operations to cost-effective operations. Some departments were privatized and some services outsourced.
It was a tough pill for municipalities to swallow but it worked. In three short years Christchurch, New Zealand was transformed from a financial basket case to a financially stable and growing community. He suggested that when it came to Canadian cities we lack the complete information needed to arrive at an accurate rating system. However, based on the limited information that was available at the time, Surrey, BC had the best rating, second was Mississauga, Ont. with Halifax coming in at number 25 out of 30 cities.
It was interesting to note that Mississauga’s Hurricane Hazel had been re-elected for the past 25-plus years and was known for her high level of integrity, openness and tough take no prisoners, get the job done, no-nonsense attitude. At the time the analysis was done for Canadian cities with a population of more than 100, 000 people so Saint John was left out of the picture. If Halifax was 25th on the list of 30 cities it’s anyone’ guess where Saint John might have placed.
During our conversation I asked him if high economic activity masked underlying municipal problems and his answer was no and cited examples where communities that were economically challenged rated quite well. It all comes down to getting the best bang for the buck. In his opinion and based on his experience, an accountability framework as well as a Local Government Performance Index is “no substitute for good leadership and a council with the courage to prescribe tough medicine when it is required”. The accountability framework and LGPI simply provides Mayor and Council with some indication as to the city’s efficiency.
We have come a long way since that meeting nearly 8 years ago . The Frontier Centre now conducts an annual Accountability and Transparency surveys for over 100 Canadian cities and Saint John is included. The good news is that we now have data whereby we can compare ourselves with other cities. It provides, if you will, some crude bench marking tools. The bad news is that we don’t stack up that well against many of the other cities.
Why is Saint John’s investment in Recreation and Culture only 71% of the provincial average?
Why is Saint John’s cost to deliver Protective Services 28.5 % higher than the provincial average?
Why is Saint John’s Future Benefit’s Liability over 204.8% of the provincial average?
Why is Saint John’s Planning and Development costs 55.3% higher than the provincial average?
How many human resource staff, lawyers, police deputy chiefs, deputy fire chiefs, leisure services councilors does a city of 70, 000 require? I don’t know the answer to any of the above questions; do you…..candidates for mayor of Saint John?
I watched the Roger’s Saint John Mayoralty debate from last week. I heard candidate after candidate cite that we have to attract more businesses and people to Saint John however there seemed to a lack of articulated plans as to exactly how that objective was going to be achieved. Businesses and families will seek out the best value when making the decision as to where to put down roots. Based on Saint John’s challenges for several decades with respect to business and population growth, it should become painfully obvious that Saint John for the most part have not been leading the pack.
Why hasn’t one single candidate for mayor come forward with the message that we require a full operational audit of every City department in an effort to identify areas for improved operations and efficiencies?
Why hasn’t one single candidate for mayor come forward with the message that Saint John must begin bench marking against other communities in an effort to show better value for our tax dollars paid?
Should any of us be admitted to the Regional Hospital with a serious health condition it would not be unusual for an x-Ray, CAT scan and or MRI to be scheduled in an effort to diagnose the nature of our illness so as to come up with the appropriate prescription.
Why shouldn’t the same approach be applied to a city facing serious challenges? Anyone that would suggest that Saint John has not been struggling for a number of years to become a healthier more vibrant city is either totally delusional or in complete denial, it’s time for a municipal MRI. It is time for a complete independent operational audit of every Saint John City department in an effort to provide greater transparency and accountability.
Your tax dollars and your city, what do you think?