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From A to F: Grading the Fiscal Transparency of Canada’s Cities, 2019

Farah Omran and William Robson ()
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Farah Omran: C.D. Howe Institute

C.D. Howe Institute Commentary, 2019, issue 560

Abstract: Financial presentations are key tools for Canadians who want to understand what their governments are doing with their money, and hold them to account. Unfortunately, Canada’s cities do not typically present information that lets Canadians do this. The problem is not so much their end-of-year financial statements as their budgets: nearly every major Canadian city presents budgets that separate current spending and capital spending on big-ticket items, and use accounting and aggregation methods that are inconsistent with their financial statements. Worse, many make the key numbers hard to find and recognize, and councillors often vote these non-transparent budgets after the fiscal year has already started and money has gone out the door. Bad budgeting practices impede councillors, taxpayers and voters seeking accountability from city staff and elected representatives. Simple information, such as how much the municipality plans to spend this year, or how its spending plan this year compares with the previous year’s plan, is hard or impossible for a non-expert to find. Moreover, the differences between how the numbers appear in budgets and in year-end financial statements have real-world consequences. Budgets that exclude key services such as water and the user fees that fund them, for example, understate their claim on community resources. Budgeting the cost of capital items on an up-front, cash basis, rather than recording the relevant expenses over the useful life of the asset through accrual accounting, exaggerates the cost of infrastructure investments, hides the cost of pension obligations, and undermines intergenerational fairness by mismatching costs and benefits over time. This report card grades the financial presentations of 31 major Canadian municipalities, based on their most recent budgets and financial statements. Of those we assessed, Durham Region, Windsor, London, Quebec City, Laval and Longueuil fail, providing little information in reader-friendly form. More happily, Vancouver garners an A+ for the clarity and completeness of its financial presentations, followed by Surrey and Richmond, each with an A-. Our overarching recommendation is that municipal governments should present budgets using the same public sector accounting standards (PSAS) and format that they use in their year-end financial statements. Most do not, and those that present supplementary PSAS-consistent information in their budgets typically do not do it in userfriendly ways. One key implication of this change would be that municipal budgets would use accrual accounting with respect to capital, recording revenues and expenses as assets deliver their services. Provincial governments that impede the preparation of PSAS-consistent municipal budgets – by mandating that cities present separate operating and capital budgets, for example – should stop doing so. Better would be to require cities to present PSAS-consistent budgets. Municipalities in provinces that continue to impede PSAS-consistent budgets can, and should, release the relevant information on their own. A second implication of this change is that municipal budgets, like municipal financial statements, would show city-wide consolidated, gross revenue and spending figures that represent the city’s full claim on its citizens’ resources and the full scope of its activities. Our second key recommandation is that cities should present and concillors should vote, budgets before the beginning of the fiscal year. These changes would help raise the fiscal accountability of Canada’s municipalities to a level more commensurate with their importance in Canadians’ lives.

Keywords: Public Governance and Accountability; Transparency of Public Finances (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: H72 R50 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2019
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