Two-year wait for 71-page city services review over

City hall watchdog questions secrecy, cost of consultant's reports

Moving to a regional police force, the "twinning" of community centre managers to make them responsible for more than one facility and questions on why the city needed almost 300 information technology employees are just some of the recommendations, observations and questions included in the draft final report of the 2009 Vancouver Services Review obtained through a Freedom of Information request.

The 71-page report notes more than "1,000 opportunities" for changing the way services are delivered across the City of Vancouver as a way to save money, including addressing the high rate of absenteeism among city employees, reducing an excess number of deputy managers and questioning the need to help fund civic theatres.

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Also recommended is finding ways to reduce the overlap of services offered by the Vancouver Archives and the Vancouver Public Library's Special Sections department.

City hall watchdog and realtor Donna Liberson told the Courier it took her two years and hundreds of dollars to obtained a readable copy of the $300,000 final draft report dated Oct. 9, 2009. The first report released to Liberson last year, a copy of which was provided to the Courier, was almost 100 per cent redacted. The current copy is about 80 per cent legible.

"The city spent a lot of time and money trying to stop this information from coming out," said Liberson. "Why the secrecy?"

The city replied to questions from the Courier in an email that explained the city adopted recommendations from the report that best fit with the organization's "strategic direction and objectives going forward."

The city, however, did not answer's Liberson's secrecy question.

The review was completed by IT and management-consulting firm Sierra Systems by order of city manager Penny Ballem, who was hired in 2008 after Vision Vancouver took power at city hall. A corporate management team from the city also worked with Sierra Systems, which has offices across North America, including Vancouver. Liberson noted Sierra Systems has since been contracted to complete a second report at a cost of $234,000 and a third for $250,000, which Liberson is also trying to get copies of. In response to Liberson's recent FOI request for a copy of the second report, she was sent eight blanked-out pages.

Liberson told the Courier she's passionate about what the city does with its money given its distribution of resources determines the quality of life for residents. When the city's assets are squandered, everyone suffers, she said.

"Our parks, community centres, cultural activities, civic volunteer programs, schools, support programs for the elderly, physically and mentally challenged and generally anyone in need are all deprived of resources that are available," said Liberson. "Instead, absolutely unbelievable amounts are spent on projects like Millennium, an $18-million dog pound, consultant reports which are not implemented-who knows what else? Just look at this Sierra Systems report. How many positions exist for which no one has a clue what they do? Who even knows how the money is spent-certainly not the Chief Financial Officer."

One of the recommendations included on page 62 of the report recommends the city "consolidate all financial services under the CFO/Director of Finance." The report also notes some city departments are better able to fund their "own programs and pet projects," because they have more of an ability to raise money than others. The report does not identify which departments.

"It shows there is no transparency, no accountability and that staff from each of the departments has carte blanche to approve their pet projects," said Liberson. "The report recommends that the city's director of finance should manage the city's finances. What the f*** else has he been doing? To me that reads that he doesn't have any power."

According to the city, the first phase of consolidation of its financial departments is complete and senior managers now report to the director of financial planning and analysis.

The report also recommends the city "develop a value for money policy."

"Oh my God, they needed to pay a consultant to tell them that?" said Liberson.

She calls the report damning and says it shows the city should be placed in the care of a trustee while an external audit of its finances is completed.

One section of the report notes the financial cost of employee absenteeism appears to be "out of sight, out of mind" at the city. The average number of sick days for city employees is 16 compared to the national average of 11. The report recommends "managers must become more accountable in the area of people management, specifically absenteeism and performance management_"

In 2009, a four-year plan was launched at the city to reduce absenteeism to an average of 10.8 days a year. In 2010, there was a seven per cent reduction in absenteeism. As well, 95 per cent of city employees now received their payroll notification online rather than receiving paper copies. According to the report, that shift can eventually lead to the saving of between 3,500 and 4,400 staff hours per year.

And while the report concluded the city has too many deputy managers, it also recommended creating a new management team to implement the recommended changes.

One section of the report is broken into "themes." Theme 1: Stop activities that do not add value, questions why the city is in the business of funding civic theatres and whether that practise should continue. That is one recommendation the Vision Vancouver-dominated city council has so far ignored. In September, council approved nearly $1 million in financial assistance to the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company.

Theme 2: Save money/reduce costs is completed blacked out.

The report says that in 2009, the city employed 241 full-time equivalent information technology workers, as well as an estimated 44.8 full-time equivalent employees who work on IT-related activities. In total, eight separate groups provided IT services for the city. At the time, the report estimated almost $28 million would be spent on IT services for all of 2009 from operating funds. That total did not include money spent for IT services from capital funds.

The city said phase one of a shared-services IT plan has already been completed and is ongoing. There is currently 211 IT staff at the city.

The report also frequently notes that, despite past recommendations, little action had been taken by 2009 when it came to making changes. The report noted the recommendations to make the city's Shared Supply Chain Management Services (SCM) more efficient were made, but apparently not implemented, in studies paid for and completed as far back as 1998, including three reports from 2000. The current Sierra Systems report reads in part, "_current SCM practices result in significant risk to the city as it does not have financial control of its SCM related expenses nor does it apply an enterprise risk management approach to its supply chain services."

In April 2010, the city implemented a new system that reduced the cost of purchased goods, services and construction. According to the city, the new policies led to savings of $9.3 million in the first year.

Liberson still questions why the city is paying almost $1 million for these three reports, when there is such a long history of non-compliance.

"For almost two years the city has fought me using their lawyers to stop this report from going public," said Liberson. "There must be a reason for that."

Twitter: @sthomas10

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