Vancouver park board’s process for setting, managing fees needs a reset: Audit

Vancouver’s auditor general says the city’s park board needs to improve how it sets and manages user fees for its services and facilities.

Auditor general Mike Macdonell released his report looking at the Vancouver Park Board’s revenue management on Monday.

“What we concluded is there were deficiencies,” Macdonell told Global News.

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According to the audit, the park board collects an average of $56.3 million in fees and charges every year. Some of the fees are designed to recover costs for services, while others like golf and marine moorage fees are designed to generate revenue.

Macdonell’s audit found that the board does have some processes in place to set those fees, but doesn’t have an effective framework for services and facilities that generate cashflow to meet revenue-related goals.

The board does have a consistent process in place to update fees every year, built on metrics like inflation rates, marketplace comparisons, accessibility and affordability, according to the report.

But that process doesn’t define service levels for revenue-generating services, or have a method to determine where fees should or shouldn’t be charged, or to what extent, it found.

It also found the board’s fee-setting process fails to evaluate the full costs of service delivery and that only some revenue-generating service areas are supported by performance metrics.

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“The park board didn’t have for instance a comprehensive understanding of the full cost of delivering services and indeed the level of service it intended to deliver for all of its service lines,” Macdonell told Global News.

“We also found the system used to determine the amount of subsidy was dated and hadn’t been updated in a significant amount of time, and was not well understood.”

The report also found that while the park board is independent from Vancouver city council, it can’t spend money without council’s approval.

The report makes six recommendations, including proactively engaging with city council while developing current and future plans to ensure funding is available for its priorities.

It also calls on the board to define and document service delivery objectives, build out a more comprehensive fee-setting framework that also looks at the cost of service delivery, set performance metrics for revenue generating services and report on actual revenues versus expenditures.

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Former Vancouver city councillor and political commentator George Affleck said the report was damning.

“Incompetence, bad management, fiscal madness. I think it said it all,” he said.

Affleck said the report’s heavy focus on revenue generation suggested the possibility the city was laying the groundwork for more private businesses in the park network.

“To me this report has two meanings,” he said.

“It’s either setting up the park board to be more focused on revenue making opportunities — cactus clubs for example, highly commercial opportunities in our parks that haven’t been taken advantage of — but it also sets us up for maybe the park board is redundant and should be dismantled.”

Prior to the 2022 municipal election, Mayor Ken Sim had said if elected he would lobby the province to abolish the city’s park board. However when the campaign began he walked that pledge back, instead running an ABC Vancouver slate that captured a majority on the board, in part, on a promise to review the body’s finances.

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“There is absolutely no talk of dismantling the park board. In fact, this is an exercise to prove the opposite,” said park board vice-chair Brennan Bastyovanszky.

“The more we improve service delivery, we do more with the money and revenue opportunities we have, then the service level and quality of our parks will continue to  expand and improve.”

Bastyovanszky described the auditor general’s work as a “friendly exercise” and a performance audit, not a financial one.

He said the purpose of the audit was to identify changes that could have the most impact in the shortest amount of time, with revenue generation at the top of the list.

“This seemed like an opportunity to stop, take a breath and and look at the ways we we do things going forward — the way fees will end up changing doesn’t necessarily mean they increase,” he said.

“Are they the right fees? Are costs being allocated properly? Is there transparency, is there visibility and understanding of how the money that’s coming in to the park board, how is it being spent?”

Macdonell said the board had agreed to all six recommendations. In a statement, the park board’s general manager said board staff were supportive of the recommendations, but will “require resources and organizational capacity” to prioritize their implementation.

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