EDITORIAL: Fees provide election fodder

A burgeoning consultants’ tab for the City of White Rock must be a concern for residents

burgeoning consultants’ tab for the City of White Rock must be a concern for residents – and particularly for those seeking votes in this month’s civic election.

Figures released by financial services director Sandra Kurylo last week show that the city’s spending on consultants’ fees crept over the $1 million mark in the first nine months of this year to reach $1,070,121 – more than twice what was spent in the same period of 2010.

There are many legitimate reasons why the figure could jump so much – including Kurylo’s suggestion that much of the expense stems from a spate of capital improvement projects currently underway.

But even if every cent spent on consultants is justified, the total figure presents the kind of optic that guardians of the public purse should be at pains to avoid.

The $1-million price tag is a nice round number, just made to order for political opportunists and those with a yen to embarass incumbents on the campaign trail.

If, as White Rock’s own policy states, consultants are employed where specific expertise is not available in house, the figure suggests – or could be made to suggest – the small city has a $1-million shortfall in know-how among its staffers. Defenders of city spending will argue, of course, that it isn’t cost effective to require city staff to have expertise in every conceivable situation.

Some projects, it’s true – particularly those involving funds contributed by other levels of government – have a statutory requirement that a consultant be hired.

In others, the presence of a consultant may truly be the best guarantee of limiting the city’s legal liability or ensuring that advice is independent and objective.

The other policy stipulation that could have led to the expense is potentially more troubling – that hiring a consultant provides the best way around tight or unexpected deadlines.

In the hands of an opponent, such reasoning could smack of poor planning and quick fixes rather than responsible use of tax dollars. The city, it could be argued, is in the throes of a consultancy habit, or dependency, as debilitating as any individual addiction.

The truth of the matter probably falls somewhere closer to responsible spending than profligacy. But White Rock politicians would be wise to try even harder to limit such expenditure in future – particularly in a city whose financial viability has been repeatedly called into question.