Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Penny counts the costs

Penny Ballem can’t please all the politicians, all the time.

Vancouver’s city manager, who is also a VANOC director, made a valiant effort to report to council April 20 on civic taxpayers’ bill for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The tally was a gross $729.2 million, which was whittled to $554.3 million with help from the federal and British Columbia governments. Her agenda, obtained under Freedom of Information, shows she met Feb. 24 with senior city hall staff including report author Annette Klein to discuss “Olympic costing.”

Coun. Suzanne Anton, the lone NPA holdover from the 2005-2008 council, criticized Ballem for including the $299.8 million of city facilities at the Olympic Village.

COPE Coun. Ellen Woodsworth read a list of items that didn’t make it into the report -- such as the sweetheart rent deal for VANOC, cost of closing Coal Harbour and Roundhouse Community Centres (to be the protocol centre and House of Italy, respectively), reduced hours at city hall and loss of revenue at local businesses because of transportation and security restrictions. If your business wasn't a downtown hotel or restaurant, chances are you suffered in February.

Ballem revealed that when she became city manager in December 2008, there was no accounting for civic Olympic costs, beyond the $20 million legacy reserve fund. “When I first started, I had been taken aback,” Ballem said. “I don’t think I was ever able to find a budget.”

Ballem said items were included because they were capital projects exclusively for the Games or on an accelerated Olympic schedule or operational expenses and reallocations. The broad definition corresponds with former B.C. Auditor General Arn van Iersel’s interpretation. He estimated in 2006 that the Games would cost B.C. taxpayers $2.5 billion, based on items planned or built on an Olympic-dictated schedule for use in supporting or staging the Games. His successor John Doyle said the provincial government was downplaying costs.

Wherever you are on the spectrum, you can’t fault Ballem for her effort. What other bureaucrat in this province is trying to deliver the truth to the people who paid for the party?

Certainly not Philip Steenkamp, the president of the B.C. 2010 Winter Games Secretariat.

His boss, Olympics minister Mary McNeil and her boss Premier Gordon Campbell keep telling us Vancouver 2010 was the “most successful in Olympic Winter Games history.” That communications strategy is based on the old maxim that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.

It’s only a matter of time before their house of cards crashes. VANOC may very well balance its books, but only with the International Olympic Committee’s bailout and a substantial, unannounced infusion from taxpayers.

The B.C. Fiberals and VANOC are just making us wait until they hope we won’t notice or care. They think October is safe.

One thing is certain, there won’t be a provincial “Ballemization” of Olympic costs, according to McNeil. Citizens and the media will have to search through the entire annual public spending report for the government to find out.

“There will not be a separate report (by the Olympic Games Secretariat), but as I’ve said, all expenses will be published in the Public Accounts, and they will be reviewed by the Auditor General,” McNeil said in a budget hearing on April 20.

That may be news to the Office of the Auditor General. Executive director Michael Macdonell didn’t offer any certainty in an April 9 email response to me.

“We are not the auditor of VANOC, and so will evaluate our position once we have received and assessed (its final) report,” Macdonell said.

VANOC, by the way, stopped publishing quarterly financial reports last year. McNeil misspoke when she said its most recent was in January.

VANOC is actually violating section 4.4 of the Multiparty Agreement that said the organizing committee will publish financial statements 60 days after the end of each quarter, in each fiscal year.

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