Audit and Finance Standing Committee, May 19, 2021
Meeting recap (the important stuff):
Not all committee meetings can be exciting, and this one wasn’t. In this Audit and Finance Standing Committee the auditor general gave her annual report about what she and her office are planning to audit this year, and answered questions from councillors on the process of auditing. The five things she’s planning on auditing this year are:
- Halifax Water IT
- HRM’s real estate department
- HRM’s IT
- Solid Waste Management
- Managing workplace behaviour complaints
Councillor Hendsbee asked the AG if her office could look at why commercial land purchases always seem to happen faster than parkland acquisitions. Those answers should be included in the report when it comes back to this committee.
The committee also changed a staff recommendation to increase the potential funding for things like the Open Streets Initiative. The initial request was initially to look at ways of making these events cheaper to operate, and closing down the roads using police is a major financial obstacle. Councillor Purdy asked if there was a way to include this in the HRP’s budget in future years, since it seems like it should be something that they just do as regular police duty, and RCMP do it for free. A city staffer explained that the province’s Motor Vehicles Act dictates the police must do road closures; that the RCMP aren’t allowed to charge for overtime but can only do road closures if they have enough people on duty; and that the HRP requires extra money because most events are on evenings and weekends so off duty cops need to be paid to come in.
Mayor Savage lamented that in other cities they’re allowed to use traffic people, not cops, to shut down streets for events. Cleary said that in his conversations with the new premier he’s convinced that changes for the better are possible.
The committee ended up passing one of staff’s alternative solutions, which is $13,000 to the Regional Special Events fund to offset traffic costs. This allows for more flexibility in how the money can be spent.
Who said what (paraphrased):
Russell: The annual audit priorities report, AG take it away!
Colman-Sadd: This year was unusual. We had some staffing shortages due to COVID. We started working from home and tried to do audits like that. Some of the audits were paper only, which was challenging, but we did it. We released two reports, and just missed the cutoff for two more that were released in April. The police IT audit took a long time. We’re currently looking at the fire inspection program and following up on some others. Over the past three years we had a number of goals, getting people to take action on our reports, making them easy to read, and better using data. We decided not to implement continuous auditing. We are trying to plan better to limit our downtime between audits. Here are my audit priorities:
Colman-Sadd: And we’re following up on LED street light conversion, HRM’s website, and fleet vehicle use this year. Any questions?
Hendsbee: The property tax management stuff, owner unknown and unknown account numbers, that worries me. Have we done an audit of our tax roll data for missing information? Sidewalk and street asset management, we’re taking over the roads in Preston, Lake Echo, Mineville and most of Lawrencetown, are you involved in that? We’ve had discussions about street lights, and lighting private lanes, we haven’t taken ownership of those. Parkland acquisition requests go to the bottom of the pile, and industrial acquisitions go first because they’re the money makers, can you look at that?
Russell: *Throws some shade at Hendsbee for bringing this up to the AG instead of staff*
Hendsbee: I’ve had my conversation with staff, that’s why I’m asking here.
Colman-Sadd: The property tax process, we made sure they followed guidelines. Looking at whether or not the rolls are entirely accurate would be very challenging. We wouldn’t be part of reviewing the assets the province is giving us. I missed the street light question?
Hendsbee: They did a full inventory of streetlights, and we took all the public ones, but the private lanes exist in a gray zone that aren’t reconciled with NS power.
Colman-Sadd: That one’s probably a question for staff.
Hendsbee: It was a comment, for real estate, our parkland requests seem to be at the bottom of the pile, and it’s frustrating.
Colman-Sadd: Part of the purpose of sharing what our upcoming audits are is so that you can share your concerns for us to get some additional information about where risk areas might be.
Russell: You made reference to the Canadian Audit and Accountability Foundation training in 2019, that was prior to a 50 per cent turnover of council, can you provide details on that training, and whether or not if redoing that training would be useful?
Colman-Sadd: I chair the board of the Canadian Audit and Accountability Foundation. The training in 2019 was a pilot project, so we didn’t have to pay for it. I believe it’s important for any elected official. It’s a good course for elected officials to be better at their jobs (she listed a lot of weedy specifics). I can look into it, if you want. But it’s a useful course.
Russell: The accepted recommendations, the target of 100 per cent recommendations is great, but some of them might be challenging to meet. Some of the managers might push back hard, what happens if the 100 per cent isn’t achieved?
Colman-Sadd: We work hard to get there but sometimes it comes down to how things are phrased. We’re all essentially talking about the same thing but we’re not hearing the language in the same way. Sometimes it’s an education process, we might not know what they can actually do, and they might not know what we do. We’ve been lucky so far but if we don’t make it to 100 per cent, my team needs to make sure it’s not a high risk assessment, and make sure management never intended to implement it, and then we’d bring it back to you for you to decide what to do about it.
Deagle-Gammon: When it comes to non-HRM committees, the commissions, if there’s a recommendation that could be challenging to implement, is there a difference between committees and commissions?
Colman-Sadd: For me to do the work? No. For your ability to exert influence? Maybe. Halifax Water, for example, has a board, and I would look to that group as well as this committee for any audit on Halifax Water.
Deagle-Gammon: Where I’m on the water commission, the audit is presented here at this committee, am I in conflict on the Halifax Water board?
Colman-Sadd: I don’t think so.
Deagle-Gammon: Some of the follow-ups, we can just go back and read the report to understand the follow-ups?
Colman-Sadd: Yes, it’s all on my website.
Purdy: In your 18 month follow-up report, if things aren’t done, what happens then? And do we get a report on that?
Colman-Sadd: There is a report that gets published, and you’ll see one next month on the three wrapping up now. Following up is a review, not an audit, which is important to us and probably no one else. But it’s a lower bar than an audit. It’s more of a spot check. Most follow up is done as a review, not an audit. And we’ll follow up with all of the incomplete ones we have now, at some point, and produce a report on that.
Savage: Thank you for your work, our auditor’s office is the best, I think, of any city and most provinces. Do we still have the tip line for people to report things that maybe should be audited?
Colman-Sadd: Yes, there is a way for people to report things to us if they have areas of concern. There’s a form on our website and you can send us an email. We’re going to start tweeting!
Savage: Whenever our audits have come forward our managers have accepted them and implemented them and that makes us stronger as a municipality.
Colman-Sadd: I’ve been impressed by management’s acceptance.
Deagle-Gammon: I’d like that training, if it needs an action item we should do that.
Russell: (I missed his first question), do you look at recommendations that have been marked as complete?
Colman-Sadd: When we do the review we only look at the recommendations we’ve made. Review is really about reasonability of what we’re being told. We send recommendations to management and ask if they’ve implemented it, if they say they’re not done, we don’t look. Sometimes we’ll take a look anyway if it sounds like they may have completed our recommendations but might not be aware of it.
Russell: HRM support for open streets, Elizabeth Taylor the floor is yours.
Taylor: We’re here to answer any questions about our report on HRM’s Open Streets initiative.
Russell: Hopefully we can do open street events shortly, anyone have any questions?
Savage: I’m interested in this, there’s some disappointment with how we deal with the province, what are other cities doing? Are there other cities that have more flexibility in this?
Taylor: Depends on their Motor Vehicle Acts. Toronto allows traffic control persons, same with Ottawa. You asked if the MVA could be amended to allow these persons, and there’s been no movement to allow traffic control persons at our events.
Savage: It’s disappointing, some people don’t like the open streets name because you close it to traffic but you open to people, so. Anyways, I think we need to keep pushing on these things. I’ve been in New York when they shut down streets, so I think we’re a little behind. We’re too afraid to offend people in cars, but that’s what we’re going to have to do.
Cleary: *Reads motion for agenda item 12.2.1 as written* I’ve put the motion on the floor, but I recommend we defeat it and go with alternative number one. (Audit & Finance Standing Committee may choose to defeat the staff motion and recommend that Regional Council approve an unbudgeted withdrawal from the Community and Events Reserve (Q621)in the amount of $13,000 to be allocated to the Regional Special Events program.) Based on my discussions with the new premier I think we’re going to able to make some headway. The MVA says you have to have cops to man the barricades but if we had a choice we wouldn’t do it this way. In the COVID times, once these restrictions are reduced, our small businesses will need to spill out into the road. It’s amazing to see kids doing chalk art and people eating souvlaki on the curb. We’re not giving them this money to pay for the souvlaki, it’s coming back to us to pay for the cops. Please let’s defeat the motion on the floor, and go with alternative number one.
Hendsbee: I agree with Cleary. We need this capacity.
Purdy: If policing services are one of the big expenses for doing this, couldn’t we negotiate it into the budget so it’s something they provide? (Yeah, you would think so wouldn’t you, but no. You can’t just fit ~$20,000 into an $88 million budget, let’s not be silly here.) How does that work for the budget and negotiating a service like that?
Taylor: We’ve never negotiated on those fees, that’s something I can look into.
Cox: Under federal regulations the RCMP can’t charge overtime, so they have to provide the service for free in an area they police. The HRP need extra money because the events are usually on evenings and weekends. The RCMP can only take on as much work as officers they have available, HRP can bring in off duty officers. RCMP is free but sometimes they can’t service events because they don’t have people.
Savage: Shoutout to our special events crew for the work they do.
Clerks: We’re having a streaming error for whatever reason the meeting isn’t being live streamed (uh…..? It’s working for me?).
M/S – Vote – Nay – Unanimous
Cleary: *Reads a motion for alternative option 1*
Morse: I’m curious about the specific amount of $13,000, are we limiting the number of events that can be held with this number?
Taylor: At the moment there are two events in Halifax and Dartmouth, if another organization did one they could apply to the grants program and we could fund them separately.
M/S/C – Vote – Aye – Unanimous
Councillor Paul Russell, Chair (District 15)
Councillor Cathy Deagle-Gammon, Vice Chair (District 1)
Councillor David Hendsbee (District 2)
Councillor Trish Purdy (District 4)
Councillor Shawn Cleary (District 9)
Councillor Kathryn Morse (District 10)
N/A – COVID
Previous meeting minutes and current agenda:
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