Prov­ince un­der scru­tiny in re­port

The Daily Press (Timmins) - - NEWS - Paola lorig­gio and Shawn Jef­fordS

TORONTO — On­tario’s so­cial as­sis­tance costs bal­looned un­der the pre­vi­ous Lib­eral gov­ern­ment but the sys­tem failed to help re­cip­i­ents be­come self-re­liant, the prov­ince’s au­di­tor gen­eral said Wed­nes­day.

In her an­nual re­port, Bon­nie Lysyk said the num­ber of On­tario Works cases has in­creased by al­most 25 per cent since 2009, hik­ing costs up more than 55 per cent to nearly $3 bil­lion.

At the same time, the pro­gram only helped 10 to 13 per cent of re­cip­i­ents find work in the last five years, Lysyk said.

“A cen­tral find­ing in al­most all of the au­dits this year was that spend­ing of pub­lic monies did not con­sis­tently re­sult in the cost-ef­fec­tive achieve­ment of an­tic­i­pated pro­gram ben­e­fits, or the proac­tive ad­dress­ing of pro­gram risks,” she said.

“We also found that, con­trary to what peo­ple would ex­pect, the gov­ern­ment did not al­ways take all steps nec­es­sary to en­sure that pro­grams are pro­vid­ing fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance only to el­i­gi­ble peo­ple.”

Since the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives formed a ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment in June, the au­di­tor’s re­port deals with the ac­tions of the pre­vi­ous Lib­eral regime in 15 value-for-money au­dits.

In scru­ti­niz­ing the prov­ince’s tran­sit agency, Metrolinx, Lysyk found the pre­vi­ous min­is­ter of trans­porta­tion im­prop­erly in­flu- enced the se­lec­tion of two GO Tran­sit train sta­tions, over­rid­ing the agency’s own anal­y­sis that sug­gested the sta­tions should not be built for at least a decade.

She also found that light-rail pro­jects planned for the Greater Toronto and Hamil­ton ar­eas in­curred roughly $436 mil­lion in un­nec­es­sary costs since 2009 be­cause of prob­lems in the tran­sit-plan­ning process and how Metrolinx car­ries out its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

“After cer­tain pro­jects were an­nounced or agreed on, the pro­vin­cial and mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments changed their de­ci­sions on what to build and when to build, even though sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ments had al­ready been made,” Lysyk said.

She cited the City of Toronto’s rev­er­sal on a tran­sit project in the east-end area of Scar­bor­ough — changes that oc­curred while Premier Doug Ford served as a city coun­cil­lor and his late brother, Rob Ford, was mayor.

The re­port also in­cludes a re­view of gov­ern­ment ad­ver­tis­ing, which found the Lib­er­als spent $62.5 mil­lion on ad­ver­tis­ing last year — the most in more than a decade. What’s more, the au­di­tor said, 30 per cent of those ads would not have been ap­proved un­der more strin­gent rules pre­vi­ously in place.

An­other sec­tion of the au­di­tor’s re­port found the gov­ern­ment could save money by hir­ing full-time IT staff in­stead of re­ly­ing on con­sul­tants for long-term con­tracts.

In one case, a con­sul­tant was signed to a 14-month, $210,000 con­tract to de­velop a soft­ware ap­pli­ca­tion in 2014. But Lysyk found that con­tract was ex­tended three times over as many years, for a to­tal cost of more than $900,000. She said the av­er­age cost of per­ma­nent IT staff sug­gests the work could have been done in­ter­nally for 40 per cent less.

Peter Graefe, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at McMaster Univer­sity, said the re­port will give the gov­ern­ing To­ries more am­mu­ni­tion to crit­i­cize their pre­de­ces­sors.

“Usu­ally this is one of the worst days of the year for gov­ern­ment,” he said. “But for a new gov­ern­ment, par­tic­u­larly re­plac­ing one that’s been there for 15 years, it’s like candy, in the sense that it al­lows them to fur­ther brow­beat a Lib­eral party that is in very weak shape provin­cially.”

It also gives them ex­cuses to go and make changes in a va­ri­ety of ar­eas, Graefe said, be­cause “they have this re­port where the au­di­tor gen­eral says that there’s been some­thing that hasn’t been done right in area X and so un­der the pre­text of re­spond­ing to that prob­lem they pre­sum­ably do a num­ber of other changes.”

The au­di­tor’s scru­tiny of the On­tario Works pro­gram will likely be of in­ter­est to the gov­ern­ment, for ex­am­ple, he said, not­ing that it could help the To­ries sell re­cently re­vealed changes to so­cial as­sis­tance.

The Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives laid out a broad vi­sion for so­cial as­sis­tance re­form last month, promis­ing to cut red tape and en­cour­age peo­ple to get back in the job mar­ket.

Peo­ple re­ceiv­ing dis­abil­ity sup­port from the On­tario gov­ern­ment will be able to keep more of the money they earn as part of the changes, but crit­ics have said it will be harder to qual­ify for help.

In­terim Lib­eral leader John Fraser has said he was wor­ried the au­di­tor’s re­port would be used by the To­ries to jus­tify cuts.

The Tory gov­ern­ment has al­ready called a com­mis­sion of in­quiry and a fi­nan­cial re­view to ex­am­ine the Lib­er­als’ spend­ing, as well as a spe­cial com­mit­tee to look into the party’s Fair Hy­dro Plan.

Those mea­sures led Doug Ford’s gov­ern­ment to de­clare that the prov­ince’s deficit is far greater than orig­i­nally be­lieved, and to call for provincewide belt-tight­en­ing.

The Ford gov­ern­ment has also put an end to a long­time dis­pute with the au­di­tor gen­eral over ac­count­ing meth­ods for two pen­sion plans and the Fair Hy­dro Plan, say­ing the prov­ince would adopt Lysyk’s ap­proach.

Bon­nie Lysyk

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