Airport cost-of-service discrepancy
City council recently authorized a decades-overdue fiscal review and the first-phase report is now publicly available. It includes attempts to make comparisons between Lethbridge and other Canadian municipalities, while noting the difficulty of making meaningful comparisons. Regrettably, the report doesn’t address the airport, the operation of which changed hands from County to City effective July 1, 2019 and thus affords an opportunity to make interesting comparisons.
Council, sitting as Community Issues Committee, received a budget summary for the airport on May 21. One might expect the budget to change very little from 2018 to 2019 regardless of which government entity is responsible for its operation, or that there be a reasonable explanation for any large discrepancies. There was an increase in “sales” revenue (about $348,000) due to WestJet adding operations to our area (hurray!), and an increase in “other revenue” (about $147,000) that arises because a water utility comes with the airport land that used to be counted in the County general budget. There were operating and wage increases that naturally come along with those things (about $171,000). If that were all it would be a great story — 28 per cent increase in revenue against an 8.5 per cent increase in wages and operation costs. But unlike the forgoing, one glaring cost difference went unexplained — an increase in “interdepartmental transfers” from $70,880 to $270,000.
These transfers are said to represent corporate overhead, and specific attention was directed to payroll and accounting services. In other words, costs directly attributable to the government entity responsible for overseeing the airport. Council spent all of five minutes and 14 seconds in Q&A on the budget; only three asked questions, and not one raised this issue. Given a week to think about it, council met May 27 to vote on the budget; they spent no time on questions or debate. They met a third time Dec. 9 to approve the budget beyond 2019, and again failed to question this. What skittish felines have we elected for them to be so incurious?
What accounts for the difference here? Does it take 3.81 City employees to do the work of one County employee? Are City employees paid dramatically more than County employees? Are County employees supremely efficient yet woefully underpaid? Does the City management provide some kind of corporate super-service to the airport, and what result should we expect to gain from the platinum level? Or is this just another way in which expenses for the mayor’s and councillors’ offices and other departments get shuffled and obscured?
Two observations: merely moving the locus of corporate service one building south across 4 Avenue shouldn’t result in a near-quadrupling of cost of service; and as we are asked to subsidize the airport operations on economic grounds, we should ask whether we are really doing that, or footing another bill entirely.
David Hughes is chair of the Lethbridge Transparency Council.