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Think tank gives Winnipeg an 'F' in financial reporting

The C.D. Howe research institute said annual budgets in most of Canada's big cities are 'a mess,' but gave Winnipeg a particularly poor score.

Coun. Russ Wyatt said the F wasn't bad enough for Winnipeg's budgeting.

Metro File

Coun. Russ Wyatt said the F wasn't bad enough for Winnipeg's budgeting.

As Winnipeg works through its 2017 budgeting process, a major think-tank has given the city a failing grade on its financial reporting practices.

A recent C. D. Howe Institute report on the fiscal accountability of Canada’s major cities gave Winnipeg an ‘F’ for approving its last budget after the fiscal year end, and for providing “little information in reader-friendly form.”

“Key totals are buried deep in their documents,” the report asserts. “Winnipeg does not present a reconciliation table at all (and) also presents its tax-supported and rate-supported budgets separately, which understates the overall size of the city’s fiscal impact.”

Winnipeg’s budget approval was 11 weeks late, with total figures of operating and capital expenses first appearing on pages 31 and 48 of 287, respectively.

The City of Winnipeg disagrees with the report.

"The City follows accepted professional practices and guidelines, including generally following budgeting standards prescribed by the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA)," reads an emailed statement from David Driedger, manager of corporate communications.

Further, the statement reads, Standard and Poor bases its AA credit rating partly on the city's "strong financial management, noting  the City’s transparent and easy-to-access disclosure to pertinent information."

But one Winnipeg councillor and former finance chair Coun. Russ Wyatt agreed with the pointed criticism, adding that more than being “quite accurate,” the C.D. Howe conclusion is actually “putting it lightly.”

“I would have given us an F-minus,” Wyatt said.

He explained how the criticism of burying key numbers is fair, adding, “there has been less and less information being presented to council and to the public” during, leading up to, and following budget deliberations.

Both the think-tank report and Wyatt also pointed out that the presentation of totals in Winnipeg’s budget documents could be improved, with C.D. Howe recommending a switch to gross revenue and spending figures from net totals.

Wyatt said the final numbers presented are a “smoke screen in the existing budget.”

He said he’d like to see improved presentation of spending breakdowns “based on allocation to each department.”

Besides taking issue with the financial reporting, Wyatt thinks the city’s whole budget process should be revamped.

“We are still concentrating on the one-year budget without much work going into future years, we really should be moving to a five-year cycle ideally, where you prove the one year coming but start working on balancing the (coming) years,” he said. “That would require a lot of work, but it’s something we should be moving towards… I don’t think we have any choice when it comes to finding efficiencies and savings.

“The sooner we roll up our sleeves and address these challenges, the better off we’ll be as a city.” 

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