ASK PAT: Staff and audits

Bruce asks—

Hi Patrick. Do you have a comparison of staffing levels by municipality as a percent of population / households / tax base in the lower mainland. If so, where does NW fare?

Has consideration ever been given to staff reductions?

Are you in favor of auditor general audits of all municipalities and efficiency comparisons?

This is an interesting collection of questions, and they seem to be leading somewhere, but I’ll take them all at face value and answer best I can.

Short answer to your first question is no. I have tried a few times to do a comparison across Lower Mainland communities on staffing levels, but the data is hard to come by, and it is especially hard to compare apples to apples on the topic of municipal staffing. Even if we put aside confounding factors (the type of police service a City runs, different services provided like New Westminster’s electrical utility or White Rock having their own water supply, and situations like the North Vancouver’s sharing of a Recreation Commission), there is no definitive source of data to determine what any City’s “FTE” (“full time equivalent”) staff counts is, other than our own. This is just not one of those things publicly accounted for in any standardized way. Even CivicInfo, your usual one-stop shop for municipal stats, had poor response rates last time they tried to survey local governments on their staffing levels. (note –New Westminster is one of the few Lower Mainland communities that responded):

I may ask what you would expect staffing numbers to tell you that isn’t already accounted for in budgetary comparisons between Cities? New Westminster spends less per capita on municipal operations than the average across the region, and our wages are (slightly) below average compared to our cohort communities, so it would be hard to imagine that we have comparatively higher staffing levels. The bulk of our operational costs are staff wages and benefits, because the bulk of our operations are customer service. Police, fire, recreation, parks maintenance, planning, etc., these things are all functions provided by people. If we allege (as some do) than a City with lower staff levels is more “efficient” or more prudent with taxpayer’s dollars, then we have to account for the work being done my contractors working for the City. As a general rule, smaller municipalities have to rely on more contractors than larger cities, and may or may not pay more for the services those contractors provide than they would if that work could be brought “in house”.

Should you hire a new Engineer at $90,000 per year, or contract that work out at $120 /hour? Back-of-the-envelope would suggest you do the latter if you have less than ~1,000 hours of work for that engineer in any given year, but the back of the envelope is always devoid of confounding factors. Obviously, larger municipalities have a bit of an advantage here, because more specialized work can be brought in house easier as there is higher demand for it. There also some significant political considerations around contracting out work, that will lead us down another path that ends with me ranting about neo-liberalism, and no-one wants to read that.

To answer your second question, there has never in my time been a concerted effort to cut staff. Part of that is related to the fact we are a growing City facing increased service needs, but part of it is because the question belies the way decision making in a municipal government works. Every year we go through a budgeting processes that that is centered on service delivery. We make decisions around what services we want to provide, where we can provide service more efficiently, and where we are falling short of community expectations. We are almost always under tremendous pressure from the community to increase delivery of programs, and we have to rationalize that within the budget available to us – and our willingness to increase taxes.

Of course we hear from people telling us tax increases are burdensome, but those people rarely tell us what services to cut. If they do offer suggestions, they usually are minor in comparison to the City’s budget, and others almost immediately come to defend that program. A recent Facebook example:

Finally, I am generally in favour of the process that the Auditor General for Local Government goes through, which I think puts me at odds with the majority of local government elected officials. But I’ll throw some significant qualifiers in there, because that is always what the AGLG does ;-).

One problem I have is how the audits are treated in the media and public. The City of New Westminster was selected for an audit a few years ago to review the management of our police budget and the relationship between Council and the Police Board. The result of the Audit was very positive, with a few minor improvements suggested, but overall a high level of confidence expressed about how New West does this work. Of course, it was good news, so there was virtually no media about it – no “news” to be found in a government doing a good job. Compare this to the shit-storm that a small municipality like Sechelt faces when an audit discovers some problems in how they do procurement. The negative audit is newsworthy, the positive audit is not, which results in an overall erosion in trust of local government, instead of building trust in the oversight of Local Government, which to be should be the goal of the AGLG.

Also, the AGLG audit process is (IMHO) stacked against smaller governments. At the first level, it expects small cities with small staff to have resources and business acumen that is often not available to them. The audit process itself is time and resource consuming, and the AGLG does not provide financial support to local governments for the staff time and resources – again much more unfairly burdening smaller governments than larger ones who are more likely to be able to absorb these costs.

So I general approve of the idea, but would like to see some shifts in how the process is put into practice.

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