Halifax auditor general Evangeline Colman-Sadd speaks to reporters at Halifax City Hall in January 2020. — Photo: Zane Woodford

The municipality is completing fewer of the recommendations from its auditor general than in years past, and blaming the slip on COVID-19.

Halifax Auditor General Evangeline Colman-Sadd’s office tabled its follow-up review of three audits from 2019 to council’s Audit and Finance Standing Committee on Wednesday.

Those three audits — into the municipality’s Payroll Management, Purchasing Card Program, and Road and Sidewalk Asset Management — contained 27 recommendations. Of those, Colman-Sadd’s office found 17 have been completed, or 63%.

“The percentage complete is down overall from prior follow-ups that my office has done,” Colman-Sadd told the committee on Wednesday. “Management told us that COVID-19 contributed to challenges in getting recommendations completed over the past year.”

Colman-Sadd’s last follow-up found 87% of recommendations were complete, and the one before that found 89% were complete.

The auditor general said she’d follow up again in a year on the recommendations left incomplete, and her office will monitor the percentage complete in future follow-up reports “to determine if this slippage in recommendations completed is a trend or is an isolated event.”

Five of the nine recommendations in the Payroll Management Audit from May 2019 are complete. Colman-Sadd said those remaining outstanding are related to monitoring. Colman-Sadd also pointed out that staff created a process to monitor for errors in employee data changes in payroll, but the municipality stopped using it during the pandemic.

“The documentation for it is all electronic, so it’s not clear why not being in the office would have prevented continuing with that control,” Colman-Sadd said, “and I just wanted to reiterate this morning that controls are important all of the time.”

All of the eight recommendations from the Purchasing Card Program Audit, also from May 2019, have been completed. That audit found a municipal employee used taxpayer money to buy a pair of Apple AirPod earbuds, two Bose Bluetooth speakers and three leather Fossil bags, among other items.

Lastly, only four of the 10 recommendations from the June 2019 Road and Sidewalk Asset Management Audit are complete. The recommendations still outstanding revolve mostly around the Transportation and Public Works department’s long- and short-term planning.

“There is a five-year capital plan now, which is progress, but they still don’t know if funding will be sufficient to complete all of those projects,” Colman-Sadd said.

“There’s also a need to establish goals that are consistent with regional council priorities, and that relates to deciding what condition the road and asset network needs to be maintained and what’s sort of that minimum standard that HRM wants. We did find that the business unit updated their annual capital processes and that’s a good step.

“There is still a need to ensure that there’s value for money and how projects are selected and that could mean that projects are not spread as evenly across districts. The need may be greater in some areas. And finally there’s a need to develop performance measures to set targets, and then to measure the achievement of those targets or progress towards them.”

Management accepted all of the recommendations at the time, and the responses to many of them in the original report state they’ll be completed in the fiscal year 2020-2021, which ended Mar. 31.

Colman-Sadd said the municipal Planning and Development Department still hasn’t completed one of the report recommendations directed its way: that it “should monitor construction and inspection of subdivisions to confirm required work has been completed.”

Mayor Mike Savage asked whether the auditor general’s office works with the departments to come up with a timeline for implementation. Colman-Sadd said the departments should include those timelines in their responses to her recommendations, but the committee also needs to take the managers to task.

“The ideal process for audit recommendations is for a committee, such as Audit and Finance, to ask for an implementation plan from the auditee, so whoever was audited, in this case a business unit, on what they intend to do in terms of implementing the recommendations, and then that provides really good information for follow up for an auditor later,” Colman-Sadd said.

“They may not have figured out how long it will take to implement, at the point in time when we’re releasing a report, and that’s why it’s a good idea if Audit and Finance loops back later and says, maybe a month later or two months later, ‘Finish your implementation plan.’”

Following Colman-Sadd’s presentation, councillors made no motions and asked no questions of management.

The auditor general’s office will next follow up on reports from late 2019 and early 2020, on HRM’s LED Streetlight Conversion Project, its New Website Project, and its Fleet Vehicle Use, Car Allowances and Mileage. Those three reports contained 11 recommendations in total.

Zane Woodford

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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