Part 4 – Former Islands Trust CAO Defending the Indefensible

The Former CAO of the Islands Trust (Dec. 2003- Jan. 2016), Linda Adams recently responded on Facebook to the “assumptions” I made in Part 1 of this series, with respect to the Islands Trust’s own March 2019 data/reporting to Trust Council that, on average only 7.1% of costs of processing development applications are captured, with the following statements (in italics). (My comments are in blue):

“Eric you seem to be basing a lot of this on an assumption that other local governments have a 100% cost recovery on their development application fees. [No, I did not make that assumption. I have pointed to the Islands Trust Policies and Bylaws which direct Staff to safeguard against $2,000,000/year in overcharges to taxpayers do not occur, BUT, which have been ignored.]

This is simply untrue. In 2017 [the year after she retired], I did a survey of the 24 municipalities in BC with populations between 10,000 and 24,000 to find out just this sort of data. [This is an interesting comment, given what I share just below.]

Of the 24, only 11 tracked the relevant data (or were willing to share it). Of the 11 that shared their data, the cost recovery ratios varied significantly (see graph below) While this was for one fiscal year only, it’s important to keep in mind that application revenue and expenses swing wildly from year to year – sometimes the fees are paid at the end of one fiscal year, but the work is done in the next, for example. A study would need to be done for several years to actually get an accurate picture of the revenue/expense ratio – either at the Islands Trust or at any local government. 

[I provide a comparative analysis of the eleven jurisdictions Ms. Adams provided below.

However, one could very well come to the conclusion thata study…done for several years to actually get an accurate picture of revenue/expense ratio had never been done by the Islands Trust. Ms. Adams’ memory seems to be selectively forgetful, considering that just such a study was commissioned under her watch by Trust Council in September 2011 and presented to Trust Council in September 2012.

Quoting from the report, “Staff undertook a review of the estimated average
actual costs of processing applications over the past three years (January 1, 2009 to June 30, 2011) to determine the extent to which fees charged by local trust committees (LTCs) cover these costs.”

On page 4/18 it clearly states that rezoning applications were costing, on average, $11,122. (The current Salt Spring Fees Bylaw charges applicants $4,400). So, even back between 2009 and 2011, the Trust was only collecting 39.5% of the costs of processing. And remember, the Trust was ignoring Islands Trust Policies while doing that. According to the 2019 figures, it has continued to get worse.] Sept 2012 Model Fee Bylaw Amendments

Also important to remember that many factors affect this. In the past 12 years for example, the province has imposed a lot of extra work on local government planning departments – with requirements that didn’t exist 12 years ago. Plus meaningful consultation with First Nations is much more the picture than it was previously. And as far as I know the Islands Trust hasn’t changed its application fees much or at all in the past 12 years – so they will have quite a different ratio to costs than they did in the past. [The problem isn’t the application fees, it is the gross inefficiencies and mismanagement at the senior levels of the Trust which have led to the $2,000,000/year over charge to taxpayers, and which, with all due respect, was allowed to continue under Ms. Adams’ entire 12 year watch as Chief Administrative Officer.]

So, first, I don’t think you can assume the changes you suggest have actually happened in the past 12 years (without a lot more data). Second, you’d need a lot more comparable data with other local governments. And third, you’d need to consider all of the factors that might have influenced changes, if there are any.”

The following is the graph Ms. Adams included in her post:

Adams 1

Let’s compare the efficiency of these 11 jurisdictions with the efficiency of the Trust:

Linda Adams Comparison of Jurisdictions jpg.jpg

I think the picture painted here is fairly clear.

A few comments on the comparisons.

  1. The ratio of fees collected to costs of processing should trend towards a balance as the number of applications increase. Jurisdictions 9-11 appear to support that. (Jurisdiction 8 is obviously an outlier)
  2. The trend to capturing costs would also be in keeping with the Local Government Act, the Islands Trust Policies (as shown in Part 2), and the Salt Spring Island Fees Bylaw.
  3.  Jurisdiction #9 is the closest “Fees Collected” by a jurisdiction to the fees collected in 2018/2019 by the Trust.
  4. None of the 11 jurisdictions come close to the amount of costs the Islands Trust took to process applications.
  5. The highest cost, with the closest relative application fee level to the Trust, was #9, with $677,384 compared to $2,252,000 the Trust spent in 2018/19…a difference of $1,574,616.
  6.  It is unknown whether any of the 11 jurisdictions have “Work Order” sheets, policies or bylaws, like the Trust, to instruct their staff to ensure the taxpayer does subsidize development applications.

Given this “tax scandal” has been going on since prior to 2004 when I first brought it up, no matter which way you look at it, the Trust, and, Ms. Adams in her role as CAO,  have failed miserably to protect taxpayers.

The following are extracts from the 2014 Salt Spring ‘Trustee Toolkit.

Keep in mind as you scroll down to the bolded sections, that this was written 10 years after Ms. Adams became CAO of the Trust, and two years before she retired.  Defense of the indefensible is bolded in red. My comments are in blue.

5.7 A different management culture

Recently, the planning unit has started to track time spent on various tasks [Given time tracking software was purchased and utilized by the Trust in 2006, why did it take so long?]. While this will help balance workloads between staff and to understand the changing needs of different local trust area, it provides an additional benefit of being able to determine performance levels.

5.16 Setting appropriate fee levels

While there are some staunch supporters [Taxpayers?] of a system of fees whereby revenues cover the costs of processing applications, there are other perspectives to consider.  Fees that are too high discourage applications and people may just not bother making applications, thereby causing other issues, such as bylaw enforcement.  [This is a damning statement. It deflects from the gross inefficiencies of processing applications by suggesting low fees are the problem, but, it also suggests that the Trust was concerned about people NOT making development applications. Think about that for a moment and see if that fits with your impression of the Trust – a pro-development government body?]

A strong case could be made that there is an overall public benefit in addressing development applications,so there should be some degree of public subsidization of the review process. [“Some degree” of subsidization? We are talking about a 92.9% “degree” of subsidization]

Given the geographic spread of the islands, actual costs of considering applications are higher than other municipalities because of required site visits and meetings with the local trust committees. With a typical yearly intake of fees of about $170,000, it appears that the level of subsidization is quite high and there is some room to increase, provided it is met with higher levels of customer service. 

The tracking of staff time should continue to determine true costs, and then this should be addressed in the future when more long-term information is available.[The tracking had already been done in 2011! And now, it is another 5 years later. “The future” is here, and its not better, its worse.]

5.17 Setting the application bar

There is a need, in the re-engineering of the development application review process, to define appropriate submission requirements for the islands. [Was that done, because there is no indication anything has changed?]

5.18 Developing Consistency

Many people through the interview process have complained about the lack of consistency in the organization – applications are treated differently in different areas. Planning processes are redesigned for each local trust area. Words are defined in different ways. Some issues are addressed on an island by island basis, rather than resolved by an overall consistent approach.  

Developing consistency throughout the organization is a valid objective. If the best practice is adopted throughout the organization, there should be considerable savings in efficiency with improvements to the quality of work. Consistency in things like definitions would go a considerable way in providing more flexibility in moving staff from project to project and island to island. It would make bylaw enforcement more standard and, therefore, more effective.  [Have changes been implemented? I’m not aware of any.]

Our Priorities

Our Council has established the following strategic priorities;

Part 3 Excellence in Governance

We will strive for excellence in governing the Islands Trust Area:

  • We will provide leadership in seeking sustainable and fair forms of political representation for the Islands Trust Area.
  • We will provide good value, implement fair taxes and fees and seek new and diversified funding sources to support special initiatives.
  • We will strive for excellence in public service and work to attract and retain a strong and skilled workforce.

Provide good value, implement fair taxes and fees….yes, but there is no indication “striving” of any kind has happened.

The current state of affairs is, in a word, indefensible.

Excellence Not…. 

 

 

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