As York Region sees continued tax increases, the need for an Auditor General has never been greater

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As we reported in the past, last year York Region Council changed the method concerning the budget process. Budgets are now being reviewed on a 4-year cycle; and this cycle will see York property taxes increase by approximately 8%.

It was with very little fanfare that the 2016 York Region property tax rate was announced. It will be rising by 2.85% – or an average of $50 to $76, depending on which of nine York municipalities you reside in.

The average York Region homeowner with a house assessed at $547,000 will pay approximately $2,290 in property taxes to the Regional government for services including policing, water treatment, public health, public transit and so on.

The Operating Budget for the Region exceeds last year’s by approximately $100,000,000, while the Capital Budget decreased by approximately $41,000,000.

Members are reminded that York Region is approaching historically high debt levels and that trend is expected to continue through to 2017.

While the Capital Budget decreased this year, the Regional Government expects to spend $6,100,000,000 in new infrastructure over the next decade. $2,700,000,000 of this is earmarked for public transit related projects. such as expanding VIVA Next rapid bus service and funding TTC subway expansion into York Region. Another $2,225,000,000 is slated for upgrades to water and waste water infrastructure.

The York Regional Police force received a boost in funding again this year despite crime rates dropping to their lowest levels in more than 50 years. The Region sees traffic fines as a potential source of increased revenues, and enforcement of over speeding and traffic signal infractions leads the way to augmenting the Regional coffers.

The Region is investing in more paramedic services. It will be hiring and building more paramedic stations across York Region.

The question York Region Taxpayers Coalition gets time and again from members is, “Are my property taxes fair?”

Our members understand the need for taxes and see value in the services the public receives. However, nobody appreciates waste or overspending. Many are concerned about the levels of public debt that the Region is taking on too.

Recently, York Region’s Treasurer acknowledged that rising debt but assured residents that York Region is considered “middle of the pack” in terms of its ability to pay off this debt.

Despite appearances to the contrary, we are told that VIVA Next spending on current bus lanes projects are on time and on budget. The Toronto Star reporter who covers this story expressed surprise at that pronouncement.

We did too.

And we see the Region adding more police officers at a period of time when York Region has never been safer. The York Regional Police are seeing a new training facility in East Gwillimbury, enjoying resources that not even the Toronto Police force have, such as a helicopter and drones.

As we told York Region Council in April, nobody, not even the Council members, can be sure if public money is being spent appropriately.

Our recommendation back then – and it remains the same today – is for York Council to take the same accountability measures that the City of Toronto has undertaken. For the protection of public funds, we are asking York Regional Council to hire an Auditor General following Toronto’s model.

Toronto’s Auditor General is independent of City of Toronto bureaucracy. This office reports directly to Council and is accountable to the public. As the name suggests, this office is accountable for auditing spending and identifying risks for Council.

Currently, Council relies exclusively on the advice of the bureaucrats when it comes to spending, making it highly unlikely that management would ever admit to being responsible for wasteful spending. Yet an independent review of projects, like the VIVA Next bus lanes, could truly determine if targets are being met.

The York Region Taxpayers Coalition would like to see an independent audit of the police resource levels. Are taxpayers seeing value for the money spent on the helicopter program for example?

An Auditor General’s office doesn’t come cheap. There are 24 people employed in the City of Toronto’s Auditor General office, mostly CGAs and CPAs but also fraud examiners, forensic auditors and even a private investigator. Their job is a very serious responsibility.

Yet with a combined budget of approximately $2.7 billion annually, historically high public debt, and plans to spend $6.1 billion on infrastructure over the next decade, the York Region Taxpayers Coalition believes that we can all rest a bit easier at night knowing that there is a team in place making sure that public funds are not being wasted or no fraud exists.

For the amount of money that is going through York Region government, it’s simply irresponsible if Council does not adopt a policy of accountability today.

In the meantime, York Region property taxes are scheduled to increase in 2016 by 2.85%. 2.69% in 2017, and 2.35% in the 2018 election year – without any measure of accountability.

About Maddie Di Muccio