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December 10, 2019 – Bad budgeting practices impede councillors, taxpayers and voters seeking accountability from city staff and elected representatives, according to a new report from the C.D. Howe Institute.

In “From A to F: Grading the Fiscal Transparency of Canada’s Cities, 2019,” authors William B.P. Robson and Farah Omran grade the clarity, comprehensiveness, and timeliness of the financial presentations of 31 major Canadian municipalities, based on their most recent budgets and financial statements and suggest how the many laggards can raise their game.

“The differences between how the numbers appear in budgets and in year-end financial statements matter in the real world,” says Robson. “Budgets that exclude key services such as water and the user fees that fund them, for example, understate the city’s cost to citizens. Budgeting infrastructure projects on an up-front, cash basis, rather than writing them off over time as they deliver their services discourages infrastructure investments.”

Of the municipalities assessed, Durham Region, Windsor, London, and Laval fail, providing little information in reader-friendly form. At the head of the class were Vancouver, with an A+, as well as Surrey and Richmond, each scoring an A-.

By comparison, Toronto earned a D, Montreal a C+ and Calgary a B-.

Among the flaws in the financial accountability of the cities with the worst marks:

  • Budgets that don’t match financial statements, making what should be simple comparisons of plans to past results, or results to past plans, difficult or impossible.
  • Burying key numbers deep in budget documents where readers cannot easily find them, and may not recognize them if they do.
  • Budgets voted after the fiscal year has already started, and financial statements released six months or more after year-end.

The report recommends:

  • Municipal governments present budgets using the same public sector accounting standards and format that they use in their year-end financial statements.
  • Provincial governments that impede the preparations of PSAS-consistent municipal budgets – for instance by mandating that cities present separate operating and capital budgets – should stop doing so.
  • Budgets and financial statements should be timely, so elected representatives vote money before it is spent, and problems come to light while they are fresh and fixable.

Read the Full Report

For more information contact William B.P. Robson, President & CEO; Farah Omran, Policy Analyst; or David Blackwood, Communications Officer, the C.D. Howe Institute at 416-865-1904 ext. 9997 or dblackwood@cdhowe.org

The C.D. Howe Institute is an independent not-for-profit research institute whose mission is to raise living standards by fostering economically sound public policies. Widely considered to be Canada's most influential think tank, the Institute is a trusted source of essential policy intelligence, distinguished by research that is nonpartisan, evidence-based and subject to definitive expert review.