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City of Windsor flunks fiscal transparency in new report

Windsor City Hall in Windsor, Ont., on Monday, Oct. 16, 2018. (Rich Garton / CTV Windsor) Windsor City Hall in Windsor, Ont., on Monday, Oct. 16, 2018. (Rich Garton / CTV Windsor)
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A new report from the C.D. Howe Institute puts the City of Windsor at the bottom of the list alongside two other Ontario municipalities for fiscal transparency.

On Thursday, the independent think tank gave Windsor an ‘F’ in its annual report tracking how municipalities help residents navigate city finances, joined by Hamilton and London.

“There has been some resistance to our insistence that budgets should include numbers that adhere to public sector accounting standards which capture the full scope of activities,” said Nicholas Dahir, a co-author of the report and research officer at the institute.

Dahir stresses the grading system isn’t meant to comment on municipal spending decisions themselves, but rather to highlight the need for greater clarity and transparency in budget documents to residents.

“[The City of Windsor] routinely post[s] surpluses and at the end of 2022 they were sitting on about $3 billion in accumulated surplus, a fact that’s not at all clear if you just delve into the budget,” Dahir told CTV Windsor. 

A news release from the institute indicates the low grades “reflect multiple issues with transparency, reliability and timeliness” in communicating municipal finances to the public.

"Some of the marks that we give are really kind of straight forward things,” said Bill Robson, report co-author and CEO of the institute, speaking to AM800’s Patty Handysides. “None of this is going tremendously deep and we're not making judgements about whether a city spent wisely or foolishly or taxed too much or too little."

The grading system aims to track how well financial documents allow councillors and everyday citizens to see proposed changes, compare results to plans, and understand budget implications.

GRADING

The Municipal Money Mystery: Fiscal Accountability in Canada’s Cities 2023 report covered 32 cities in Canada, giving grades ranging from A+ to F. No city achieved an A+. Richmond, BC and Quebec City, QC scored highest, each achieving an A grade.

The C.D. Howe Institute gave the City of Windsor an 'F' grade in its annual fiscal transparency report issued on April 18, 2024. (Courtesy C.D. Howe Institute).Dahir concedes the 2022 election year forced the municipality’s hand in delaying the budget release to after the fiscal year began.

“Which is a practice we strongly discourage,” said Dahir. “It means money is being spent and taxes are being raised without any approval by council which is a very large gap in the chain of accountability that we penalize in our scorecard.”

Simply releasing the budget before the start of fiscal year would have seen the city receive a passing grade said Dahir, as would releasing financial statements within at least three months of fiscal year ending.

“What would make [the grade] skyrocket to the top of the class would be if [the city] presented public sector accounting standard consistent numbers in its budget,” said Dahir.

“They rely on a cash basis which presents a series of problems. One of the more frustrating is that there’s not a single number. If somebody wants to delve into the city budget, people who are non-experts and sometimes even experts and even councillors, they would have a real challenge ahead of them in trying to piece together what exactly the fiscal plan for the year is going to be.”

Overall, the authors of the report find transparency has improved over time, but not consistently and not enough.

CTV Windsor has reached out to the City of Windsor for comment, but has not heard back as of publishing.

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