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EDITORIAL: Tracking consulting costs worth city's time

'Data on spending, for any company, has inherent value, especially at a time when significant trims are imminent.'

Council's decision to track the amount the city spends on consulting each year is right on the money.

Thanks to a motion put forward by Coun. Shelley Biermanski at city council's Sept. 6 meeting, administration will now be charged with the task of creating a report mid-way through each year featuring a detailed list of all consultants hired in the previous year, the costs, and the city's reason for each.

Biermanski cited clarity as the reason for the motion, adding, "It's good to see where our dollars are going."

It's not just a good thing. At a time when municipalities are feeling the squeeze of cost increases in virtually every department, at a faster rate than tax hikes can keep up with, along with reduced funds from provincial and municipal governments, it's imperative for all to be closely eyeing that bottom line.

This isn't just spending on incidentals, nor is it a fixed, predictable cost. 

Any area in which there is potential for sliding off the financial rails should be monitored regularly, especially when you're spending other people's money. 

Consultant fees is most certainly such a place.

From January 2021 to June 30, 2022, the city spent $1.76 million in consulting costs, as is laid out in a report released in June following an April information request. 

It's an intriguing dive into the more than 100 individual charges, which include such tabs as $173,512 to DLA Piper for consultation on a confidential "revenue opportunity," and $75,000 for an energy corporation feasibility study with Ernst & Young, as highlighted by Gazette city hall reporter Rachel Narvey in today's front-page story.

The cost to administration to prepare such a report each year: around 52 hours of work — an hour per week.

What's disturbing is the pushback Biermanski's motion received from Coun. Natalie Joly, and then Mayor Cathy Heron upon hearing of the time required to compile consultant data.

“Honestly, the value that we’re going to get out of this 52 hours is just not there for me,” Heron said.

Joly also said she doesn't “see the value of increasing our costs to get into the weeds.”

At just shy of $2 million over an 18-month period, those consultant fees are well out of "the weeds."

For a council willing to shell out significant cash and time on exploring alternative revenue streams, it seems silly to balk at the idea of investing such little time in compiling consulting expenses.

Data on spending has inherent value, especially at a time when significant trims are imminent.

Council was elected to put our interests forward, and work hard on our behalf, with financial prudence.

Staff time should easily accommodate pragmatic governance without additional cost to taxpayers.

No one should be fighting added transparency around the city's spending. It’s simply good governance — a responsibility voters expect from their elected representatives.

Editorials are the consensus view of the St. Albert Gazette’s editorial board.

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