Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Taxpayers' money easy to spend

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BRANDON -- It is a common complaint that politicians spend tax dollars they would never spend if it was their own money. Recent decisions by Brandon's city council make the point.

Eight months after it was revealed that Brandon had not filed its 2010 and 2011 audited financial statements with the province, the Selinger government is still waiting for those statements.

"The 2010 and 2011 audited financial statements are outstanding," local government spokeswoman Naline Rampersad said Tuesday. "As a result, almost $4 million in gas tax funds have been held back but will be released immediately upon receipt of the statements."

In December, city council took the unusual step of arranging a $5.35-million line of credit with a local bank "for general operating expenses in the 2013 fiscal year." In February, that amount was increased to $10.35 million.

The decision mystified accountant Dan Trotter.

"Instead of borrowing millions to cover operating expenses, why don't they just file those statements and get that gas tax money?" he asks. "We're talking about thousands of dollars -- taxpayers' money -- in unnecessary interest costs. Maybe council would move faster if they had to chip in to pay the interest."

In the fall of 2011, the city jumped at the opportunity to take title to the vacant Brandon Inn for unpaid taxes. Last fall, council approved $860,000 to remove asbestos and other hazardous materials from the building. On Monday, council voted to spend another $271,000 to demolish the building.

That's more than $1.1 million in taxpayer funds being spent to create an empty lot. Coun. Corey Roberts has speculated the property could be worth $1.5 million after demolition, but an identical-size parking lot adjacent to the north of the Brandon Inn is currently assessed as having a fair market value of just $132,200.

The property to the south of the Brandon Inn has an assessed value of just $184,700. It was purchased in October by taxpayer-funded Renaissance Brandon for $325,000, despite the absence of any other serious bidders. Roberts and Mayor Shari Decter Hirst serve on the Renaissance Brandon board, which is appointed by city council.

The fact there were no competing bids for the property is unsurprising. A gas station was operated on the site for decades and Renaissance Brandon officials have confirmed that the property may be contaminated with chemicals. If it is, the cleanup costs will be Renaissance Brandon's responsibility, meaning that the net cost to taxpayers will be even higher.

On Feb. 19, council approved a new contract with the Brandon Police Association, which gives officers a 4.4 per cent wage increase retroactive to Jan. 1. There will be an additional "wage adjustment" on July 1, based on wage settlements in four other "comparator" cities in Alberta and Saskatchewan. It is anticipated that the total increase could approach or exceed seven per cent.

At the Feb. 19 council meeting, several councillors expressed relief that the negotiations had gone so smoothly and been concluded so quickly. They shouldn't have been surprised.

According to sources familiar with the negotiations between the city and the police, the reason an agreement was reached so quickly was because the initial offer submitted by the city's negotiating team was far higher than the police expected and more than police had been prepared to settle for.

"They took the money and ran as fast as they could," one source said.

Other questionable spending decisions include approximately $250,000 that was spent chasing the 2017 Canada Games, even though the city was repeatedly warned by senior games officials that the bid did not satisfy the minimum criteria. Thousands more in money and staff time were wasted chasing a casino that the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs had already committed to Carberry.

In isolation, each of these actions is troubling. Considered together, however, they point to a lack of concern for the management of taxpayers' dollars on the part of a mayor and council with almost two years remaining in their mandate.

Deveryn Ross is a political

commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2013 A15

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