*** It is always a wonderful thing to find others who take great interest in the financial wheelings and dealings of our governments the way I do, and Grant Rice is definately a wealth of information when it comes to the municipal affairs of the city of Surrey. He shares many of the same concerns as Ross Buchanan, with regards to the lack of cities accountability and transparency in muncipal financial affairs. At the Surrey Board of Trade all candidates dialogue, he spoke to the question ” Do you support a municipal auditor general? ” I was so impressed with his answer- and quite frankly, wanted to know more about the land deals he spoke to- that I asked if he would like to do a guest post for my site, and he graciously accepted. Grant Rice is currently finishing his masters in Urban Studies, has been a bold community activist and is running for city council in Surrey this year- I suggest you check him out.
Why Surrey Needs an Independent, Municipal Auditor General
Having an independent municipal Auditor General look at our municipal finances could unlock some long held secrets. When Surrey’s Manager of Area Planning, South, was dismissed by the city last year they indicated that some developers had benefited from preferential treatment.
The RCMP investigation resulted in only one city employee being charged. Around the same time the Manager of Long Range Planning left under mysterious circumstances. Was there a severance package involved? No explanation of where the buck stopped or details about the extent of the corruption were ever revealed.
During the economic recession, the mayor’s former campaign manager, Chris Gardner, was hired as the Manager of Intergovernmental Affairs. Less than half a year later he returned to his former employer. How much did that cost? Recently the Deputy City Manager, Dan Botterill, was fired and is now suing.
Between the end of 2005 and 2010 General Government expenses increased from $21 million to $57 million. The cost of consultants’ services has more than tripled from $5 million to $16 million. Only an Auditor General would be able to find out if these expenses are justified.
Barbara Steele, in her role as UBCM President, voiced concerns that she needed to know why the province thinks an Auditor General is necessary. “We don’t know what the problem is that they are trying to solve with a municipal auditor-general,” Steele said. “We would like an understanding of what they want to achieve from this office. We’re in the dark here.” No Councillor Steele, it’s the citizens of Surrey that are being kept in the dark.
Surrey First claims the city already undergoes an audit. The difference is that KPMG is making sure that the numbers add up. They are not looking for waste or whether relationships between developers and council are unethical. Having your books audited is not a guarantee that your accounting practices are in order. Arthur Anderson was well respected before Enron collapsed.
I would love to see an independent audit of the Campbell Heights land transactions from 2003. The SET dominated council sold land to favoured developers at $35,000 an acre when industrial property was being sold for ten times that amount. By 2007 the same properties were selling for over $800,000 per acre.
Barbara Steele, Dianne Watts and Marvin Hunt were members of the SET team and Linda Hepner was the Manager of Economic Development. Judy Villeneuve and candidate Judy Higginbotham also voted in favour of the sale. At least one of the developers is a regular donor to the Surrey First election campaigns. Why was this land sold at fire sale prices? I asked the same question in 2008 and haven’t heard a satisfactory response.
Three years later and the same patterns are being repeated. When the City of Surrey transfers land to the Surrey City Development Corporation (SCDC) they are doing so at book value as opposed to fair market value. Profits on the eventual sale of real estate are then divided; two thirds come back to the city and the other one third is retained by the SCDC for future operations. This method of accounting could show an unsubstantiated profit for the SCDC if the transfer is at less than fair market value.
The SCDC is currently in joint ventures with the Townline Group of Companies constructing 143 town homes in East Clayton and T.H. Housing, a Townline subsidiary, developing the old Cloverdale Mall site.
Surrey taxpayers need some assurance that projects the SCDC is overseeing do not favour developers with ties to any of its directors (Townline contributes to Mayor Watts, Councillor Hepner and the rest of the Surrey First candidates) and that they are tendered in a fair and transparent manner.
An independent Auditor General might be able to answer these questions and shed some light on the details that are missing from the city’s Annual Reports.