Stephanie Ryan

Would Surrey council really welcome a look at the books?

Surrey council says they would be glad to have a Municipal Auditor General look over their books, but would they really?

Last month, City Council supported in principle the provincial government’s proposal to open a Municipal Auditor General (MAG) office in the name of openness, transparency and accountability.

Mayor Watts must be convinced that the city is providing value for money. But I wonder what a MAG would have to say about a number of different expenditures over the last several years.

In 2010, Surrey wanted to participate as a host city for the Olympics celebrations. As a result, the city fast-tracked the construction of the Chuck Bailey Recreation Centre in Whalley, which was to serve a dual purpose as an Olympics Volunteer Training Centre, at a cost of $10.5 million. For the privilege of building such a centre, whose costs were inflated due to the fast-tracking, the city paid a $2 million Olympics host city “membership fee”.

No one from the city has yet explained whether we could have paid $1.5 million, $1 million, or even $500,000 for membership in the exclusive Olympics host city club. Nor have they explained why the Olympics Volunteer Training Centre was never even used as such. I wonder if a MAG would deem this a good use of taxpayers’ money.

In 2003, City Council moved forward with accelerated plans to push forward with a massive industrial park in Campbell Heights, on the Little Campbell River watershed, in the hopes that they might land a major tenant like Microsoft. In the process, they wreaked havoc on the surrounding salmon habitat, negating the usual riparian setbacks in some cases, lowered the water table and almost completely drained nearby Latimer Lake. They installed expensive city services like roads, water and sewer to this remote location, and gave away a vast swath of public land at a mere $35,000 per acre when the market value for the land was about 10 times as much.

In the end, Microsoft went to Richmond. Many of the industrial land plots remain unused. Many of the current Councillors, including the Mayor, sat on Council at the time this decision was made. I suspect a MAG would ask hard questions about the decision-making processes that took place throughout the planning of Campbell Heights.

And here we are, in 2011, being told that the new City Hall in City Centre will cost taxpayers $50 million. This is a steal, given that corporate reports show that the real cost of building the new City Hall will actually lie in the area of $87 million to $97 million, when a contingency of $10 million is included.

True, the city hopes to offset $37 million of the construction costs through leasing revenues. But given that the city has not yet identified any reuse or leasing potential for Surrey’s existing City Hall, we should assume we will be footing the bill for the full $87-to-$97 million until we can confirm that we will be able to in fact recoup $37 million from leasing city space. The promoted pricetag of $50 million can only be attributed to creative accounting on the Mayor and Council’s part.

 

What’s more, it’s unclear what will happen if the city is unable to raise $37 million through leasing costs to defray some of the new City Hall costs. Will cuts have to take place in other areas of the city’s budget, like parks and recreation?

And what would a MAG say about the fact that the city spent $9 million on renovations to the old City Hall when someone must have known that plans for a new City Hall were in the works?

I would agree with Mayor and Council that a Municipal Auditor General isn’t such a bad idea, after all. However, I would caution them against believing that their decisions would be immune from scrutiny. In the absence of a MAG, what we really need is more City Councillors who are willing to raise these kinds of questions on a regular basis.

Stephanie Ryan

Candidate for city council

Surrey Civic Coalition

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