Canadians were shocked when the federal government’s auditor general discovered recently that more than half of the phone calls made to the Canada Revenue Agency between March 2016 and March 2017 were blocked.

Some callers got busy signals, others a message suggesting they call back or check the website for further information.

Michael Ferguson said 75 per cent of those who reached the self-service system hung up before even listening to the main menu.

Receptionists at Burlington City Hall are always helpful, but reaching a member of senior staff on a Friday afternoon can be as difficult as getting an answer out of the CRA.

This fault likely will never show up in an auditor’s report, however, since the City employs its own internal auditor and the external auditor it hires answers ultimately to council.

Auditors general at the federal and provincial level of government, on the other hand, are completely independent.

At a recent meeting City audit committee member David Tait, who formerly worked in the banking industry, asked what protection the City has against fraud. He noted that all banking employees must sign a letter indicating they are not aware of any fraudulent activity within the organization.

Sheila Jones, the City’s internal auditor, pointed out employees of the City sign off on a code of conduct annually.

Sensing a desire from the committee to have its fraud detection system enhanced, City Manager James Ridge said he would do a further investigation and report back.

However, with 1,000 employees working for the City, he said he questions the value of having every one of them sign.

Councillor Paul Sharman, the newly elected chair of the board, said Deloitte Touche, the City’s external auditors, focus on ensuring the reliablilty of external financial reports.

“They’re not looking for fraud,” he said.

Sharman said the Regional Municipality of Halton has experienced significant fraud. In addition, he said, a person in the accounting department defrauded a board he once served on while a city councillor out of $600,000 through the illegal use of credit cards.

Representing Deloitte Touche, Trevor Ferguson said his firm brings forward errors of more than $300,000 to the audit committee as part of its year-end reporting. But if it’s mistake of a much smaller amount like $5,000, they skip right over it because it’s immaterial and will not impact their opinion on the financial statement.

Joan Ford, director of finance for the City, told the committee between 2012 and 2016 Burlington averaged $3.7 million a year in consulting fees associated with its capital budget, representing 6.7 percent of the total budget of $55 million.

Fourty-five per cent of that was spent on things like technical planning, IT, environmental engineering and labour law.

Ford said these are areas where City staff does not necessarily have the expertise. But she went on to say an effort is being made to use current staff whenever possible.

The City also placed $550,000 in its 2017 budget for project management.

On the operating side, consulting fees average out at about $1 million per year, which translates to 0.5 per cent of the total operating budget of $240 million.

Of that, 43 per cent was used for medical and arbitration services in the area of human resources.

In 2012 the government of British Columbia, under Premier Christy Clark, appointed Basia Ruta as its first auditor-general for local government. It was her job to monitor spending at the municipal level.

The B.C. Chamber of Commerce was praised for promoting the idea which, nevertheless, did not receive total endorsement from residents of the province.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said the expenditure of $2.6 million annually to open the office in Surrey was a waste of money because there had been no incidents of the misuse of funds at the municipal level.

Ruta later was fired but replaced in 2015 by Gordon Ruth, who left his position as executive vice-president of certification and operations for the Chartered Professional Accountants of B.C. to take the job.

There also were attempts to install auditors general in some Ontario municipalities like Oshawa, Windsor, Markham and Sudbury.

The failed effort to build an NHL arena fueled the action in Markham, where that city budgeted $219,000 for the job in the year 2015.

Dennis Gibbons

Providing a Fresh Perspective for Burlington and Hamilton.

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