The city’s auditor reassured councillors Friday that although $250 million in spending on consultants was miscoded, it wasn’t misused.
Ward 1 Coun. Andrew Knack said he feels much better about the $616 million the city spent over five years on consulting following an audit committee meeting that allowed the panel to question staff about not properly categorizing spending on consultants and a finding that 72 per cent of the time “change orders” were made to increase the amount of money set aside for a consulting project.
“Having the opportunity to ask the questions today, and hear our city auditor, essentially verbatim, state that money is not being used inappropriately is really encouraging for everyone in the city to know,” Knack said.
The $616 million spent on consulting between 2013 and 2017 was all accounted for under external services, but $250 million was “miscoded,” meaning that staff categorized it as the wrong type of spending.
City staff accepted a recommendation from auditor David Wiun to do better staff training on how to code expenses, and city manager Linda Cochrane also said things would get better by having fewer codes and by streamlining the process.
The city is also going to change its practices related to change orders. Although orders were made in 72 per cent of cases to increase spending on consulting, administration told committee that in more than half of those instances, they knew the additional spending was coming. And staff said they plan to get better at estimating and preparing for projects to try to curb the instances of unexpected costs popping up.
Answering questions about why the city can’t do more work in-house, staff also defended its use of consultants.
The city’s chief financial officer, Todd Burge, said consultants are often brought in to deal with competing priorities because every time city staff are asked to complete a new report, it takes them away from other work already underway. And sometimes, consultants bring expertise and perspective that the city doesn’t have in-house.
“You do want external perspectives. You want perspectives of people who’ve worked on these kinds of projects, and other organizations that bring an external view,” Burge said, giving the example of having expert insight to help determine spending for industrial land.
But even after administration answered questions, Ward 11 Coun. Mike Nickel, who earlier said the auditor’s report made him question the competency of city staff, said he remains “frustrated” by what he says are concurrent rising numbers of staff and consultants.
“You can’t have both. You can’t have more staff, and more consultants, and rising costs,” he said.
With a looming budget where things are expected to be “tight,” Nickel said every dollar counts, and that he doesn’t understand why it took an audit to “move the ball” on getting what he said is basic stuff.
“I don’t think you’re not trying. I think that you are. But we have to pick up the pace,” he said.
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