unlikely hero gives honest answers

This is a little nudge of support for Mark Tubman. Who is Tubman, you ask? Well, the guy is a civil servant.

This is a little nudge of support for Mark Tubman.

Who is Tubman, you ask?

Well, the guy is a civil servant.

And, for about 15 years, the guy has beavered away, in relative anonymity, within the Yukon Finance department.

He’s a number cruncher.

Tubman has served successive Yukon governments of many stripes.

He, and a battery of colleagues meet reporters once a year armed with a trolley of Yukon government documents in the annual budget lockup.

Reporters ask questions about the mind-boggling universe of numbers. Finance officials, like Tubman, give precise, accurate answers.

This year, The News had a follow up.

What is a tangible capital asset, and shouldn’t a transfer be considered an operation and maintenance expense?

We had been tipped off by other clever folks that the territory was the only jurisdiction in the country to allow politicians to tell the public O and M expenses were capital costs.

Faced with this question, Tubman looked our reporter square in the eye.

He paused a minute.

Then he answered our question precisely and honestly.

Such answers sometimes take courage. They shouldn’t, but, within a bureaucracy, they often do.

So, for Tubman’s courage we should be grateful.

The territory should be grateful.

See, for years the budget numbers haven’t quite added up.

How could the government spend $80 million, $90 million or, in the case of this fiscal year, $191 million on a capital budget and not have anything to show for it?

Let us explain…

A new jail will cost the territory — ballpark figure — $40 million.

A new high school, about $30 million.

A couple of community health facilities, about $20 million.

A bridge across Dawson City $60 million.

With a $190 million capital budget, a government could build all those things, and have enough left over to build a significant road to resources somewhere.

All in a single year.

So where are these things?

There is nothing so impressive in Finance minister Dennis Fentie’s record-breaking capital budget.

So where is the money going?

Well, contrary to what Fentie would like you to believe, it isn’t going to capital spending.

Not in its purest sense.

It is going into paper, and binders, and paper clips and data input.

It is going into loafers, pins, pens, lunches and discussion groups.

It is going to First Nations, villages, towns and lawyers and consultants and individuals and groups, both big and small.

It is vanishing into the ether.

That is, it is going to the business of government.

To give the impression he is spending a lot on private-sector job-generating capital, Fentie has finessed operations and maintenance expenditures into the capital budget.

“Political decisions get made at the management board,” said Tubman, an all-too-rare, courageous admission for a civil servant.

So what are these political decisions that blur the line between capital and O and M?

Well, the annual $1 million for FireSmart budget would be one.

And $7.35 million for home-ownership loans offered by the Yukon Housing Corporation another.

Or the $206,000 for the Chisana caribou herd recovery project.

None of those programs adds a tangible capital asset to the Yukon government — something it could sell to pay back a growing debt.

With the government’s new focus on cost-based accounting, this is important. Because its assets play into its surplus or deficit position.

In total, the government is spending $76 million on pseudo capital projects.

The politicians have also finagled transfers to schools, First Nations, non-profits and communities into the capital budget.

The politicians like to presume these transfers will be spent on “capital projects.”

This is disturbing because the government doesn’t seem to know how, in the end, the money will actually be spent.

As Tubman noted, by way of example, Finance officials have no idea how a $1.5 million community training fund will be spent.

Will it give the territory a tangible capital asset, or will it simply rent a convention centre and a chicken dinner? (Our words, not Tubman’s).

These transfers amount to $35 million.

So, taken together, the government is spending $111 million on questionable capital projects.

These things are probably better considered operation and maintenance costs.

And Tubman and his Finance colleagues have written three letters to management board requesting that, in fact, they be moved to the O and M budget.

The requests have been ignored.

Government wants to be seen to be efficient, and transferring lots of money to the private sector, said Tubman.

In fact, the cost of running the Yukon government is better estimated at $710 million.

And the capital budget is probably more like $79 million. Of that, $34 million is coming from Washington to rebuild the North Alaska Highway.

Successive Yukon governments have engaged in this bait-and-switch capital accounting.

But the Fentie government has brought it to a new high — $191 million.

It’s bunk.

Tubman confirmed it.

He answered our precise questions honestly.

He didn’t blink.

The candour is rare in the Yukon civil service.

It shouldn’t be.

We all owe him thanks for bringing a little honesty to the annual budget charade. (RM)