Coun­cil­lors pep­per city staff with queries on au­di­tor’s re­port

Edmonton Journal - - CITY - PAIGE PARSONS ppar­sons@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/paigeepar­sons

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 in­house, 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.

DAVID BLOOM

City staff ac­cepted a rec­om­men­da­tion from au­di­tor David Wiun on Fri­day to im­prove staff train­ing on prop­erly cod­ing ex­penses.

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