When it comes to the Olympics of annual reports, St. Albert stands on the middle dais right above the number 1. The city was recently named the recipient of the Canadian Award for Financial Reporting by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada (GFOA) for its 2019 Annual Report. Go ahead and download your own copy at stalbert.ca/cosa/finance/annual-reports and revel in its glory.
While that might come as cause for celebration for all residents of this fair burg, we have quietly held this gold medal position for 19 years in a row.
If you're not an accountant or a public servant who might have the keen sensibilities to fully appreciate a document such as this, the city’s director of financial services and information technology can help break down its importance for you. She says that it proves that St. Albert does more than just meet the standard legislative requirements to satisfy the Municipal Government Act (MGA).
“It's about being able to tell the whole story in a way that the average reader can understand,” Diane McMordie began. “Numbers are only numbers without the story behind them.”
The award recognizes excellence in governmental accounting and financial reporting. It also offers a huge nod to affirm how the city manages its finances. The purpose of the award program is to encourage municipal governments throughout Canada to publish high-quality financial reports through peer recognition and technical guidance for officials who prepare those reports. The 2019 Annual Report was judged by an impartial Canadian Review Committee to ensure it met the highest standards of the program.
With this 19th win, St. Albert has proved that its annual reports are unreservedly the best at not only explaining what their numbers mean and analyzing the trend in its financial position over time, but also determining how well the city’s goals were achieved with the money that it spent and validating in a way what the city’s financial position looks like.
“It makes that connection between council’s strategic plan, the corporate business plan, our annual budget, and then looking to our ultimate financial results to see how did we use those dollars to achieve those objectives.”
The win represents a major achievement for exceeding generally-accepted accounting standards and clearly communicating the municipal government’s financial picture. Deputy Mayor Wes Brodhead beamed how proud city council is to provide a transparent, easily readable and efficiently-organized report consistently over almost two decades covering five different administrations: from Richard Plain all the way to current Mayor Cathy Heron.
What people can take away from this is an affirmation to have the utmost confidence in the city’s financial management ... You can argue about how the money's spent but you can't argue that the use of money is done appropriately and professionally,” he stated.
"The fact that 19 years in a row we've gotten this award for professionalism and confidence in our annual reporting says a lot to the people. As a councillor, you just double up on those feelings because we're making decisions around other people's money ... our own money, too, to be sure."
He offered high praise to McMordie for her strident efforts to gain St. Albert's wide recognition as a champion in this regard.
McMordie offered an impromptu sample of her financial storytelling skills when asked about the city's financial position: what it looks like and how we're doing.
"We're in a really good financial position. We're a fairly conservative organization. We have really good reserve balances. We have quite low – and managed – debts. We're taking on a few more debt-funded projects right now, which is not a bad thing," she began.
"One of the advantages you have of funding certain things through debt is that it creates what they call generational equity. When you have a very long-term asset, you don't want the people today to be paying for 100 per cent of that asset when people in the future are going to get benefit from that asset. It's a way of basically spreading out the costs over the lifespan of the asset. We do have very low debt limits. We're well, well below the provincial levels because there are caps that are put in the MGA that we're only allowed to have so much debt. We're well, well below those levels so we have lots of flexibility there. In terms of our current financial position ... I think we did a phenomenal job through COVID. We ended the 2020 year in a surplus, and that was by making some very quick, somewhat hard decisions, but really quick decisions because we knew that it was going to hit us hard financially. At the end of the day, those decisions mean that it isn't going to be on the backs of the residents to make up shortfalls."
Brodhead ended by saying that, while it is indeed worthy of celebration for St. Albert to achieve this award, doing it year after year for so long means that its outstanding financial practices are its regular way of doing business. He fully expects that the city and McMordie and her staff will carry on as usual year after year after year.
"That's our expectation. Now here's the thing. After you have met this standard, there is no rolling back. I’ve got every confidence that they'll meet this standard. I see Diane and her team work on a daily (and) weekly basis. They bring it. Every time you hear Diane speak in council, there's a sense of commitment and competence and professionalism behind it."
McMordie said she anticipates releasing St. Albert's 2020 annual report on April 19.