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THE $803,000 LIST: Boondoggle?

August 12, 2004 17-Oct-2011 [727]

Part of City Spending

posted August 12, 2004

The last time city council met, at the end of July, a group of us tried (and failed) to interest city council in stopping a "facility-audit" for Parks and Recreation, that will cost over $800,000. To do an audit, the city gets inspectors to go from place to place checking roofs and walls and wiring and water lines, etc., and writing down what shape everything is in. The inspectors write down what needs repair now and what may need repair or replacement later, up to a period of 25 years, making a separate, detailed report for every facility owned by Parks and Recreation. The last such inventory was ordered by the Policy and Planning Division of the Economic Development and Parks Department in 2001. As an example of the level of detail in that audit, the Dufferin Rink report runs to ten pages. When we studied the 2001 audit a few months ago, we were amazed to find that (1) none of the audit’s recommendations for our rink had been carried out and (2) not one of the things that did in fact go wrong with our rink was predicted by this audit. To be fair, there is a severe shortage of money in the budget to maintain existing city facilities, so if a repair is not an emergency, it often gets postponed year after year. As for not being able to anticipate the things that did go wrong, forecasting things accurately is tough. So we thought, live and learn. Audits don’t work that well; now, let’s just get on with fixing what’s broken, piece by piece.

To our astonishment, we found out recently that the Policy and Development Division had asked for another $803,000 to do a repeat audit of exactly the same facilities, only three years after the first one. They said that they need some more details. But when we looked over their plans we discovered that the new details they want this time are not very different from the old details.

We tried pretty hard to interest the Economic Development and Parks Committee (elected city councillors) in taking another look at this scheme before they approved it. No luck at all. Then we tried to interest city council in delaying their final approval. No luck there either. Councillor Adam Giambrone decided not to raise the matter at the council meeting because he was sure no one would support him. And indeed, the $803,000 expenditure passed in an eyeblink.

Why does this concern us so much? Because at the same time as $803,000 is spent on making more lists, picnic tables will not be repaired when they break. Muddy park paths will not be paved. Summer staff will be short at city wading pools. Many of the other things that actually make parks work well will not get done.

It seems that the same folks from the Policy and Development Division who called for this repeat audit are also responsible for persuading the city to spend - so far - over $6 million for some very extensive, and dubious, playground replacements.

Now, the interesting thing about money for these sorts of special projects (called "capital projects") is that the city is allowed to borrow it. The city doesn’t have to be restrained, in the short run, by how much money we have. Of course, since borrowed money has to be paid back with interest, that means the pain is drawn out, and multiplied, over years. But for now, we can have projects like this second facility audit in three years, or the replacement of good existing playgrounds with new boring ones, on credit.

This comes back around to the problem of broken picnic tables at our park and too few park staff at other parks. The interest on any money the city borrows for capital projects like an $803,000 duplicate audit, or $6 million of inferior playgrounds, is paid out of the operating budget. Every year, many millions of tax dollars that could help run parks, fix roads, buy zambonis, or staff summer playgrounds - are used instead to pay interest on the city’s debt. And it’s our impression that the Policy and Development Division is rewarded for any projects that are approved, by getting a percentage of the capital money to put into their operating budget.

The follow-up research group that works out of the park (CELOS) has been trying to find out more about this. But city hall is a secretive place, and sadly, that seems not to have changed with the election of Mayor David Miller. We’ve recently discovered that there is an order from the city administration to answer NONE of our follow-up group’s questions directly, but to insist that every question be made as a formal request through the city’s Corporate Access and Privacy office. And when we filed those requests, we found that the answers were very rarely released within the required 30 days. In some cases, answers are so overdue that we now have to visit the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian, and have a talk.

So that’s another thing to follow up on. Sigh. One of our research group said - you have to have stamina to track down what you want to know from the city. It’s a modern kind of work-out - flexing your follow-up muscles, over and over, until you develop a well-toned tracking technique.

Attachments to document: THE $803,000 LIST: Boondoggle?