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Social assistance costs ballooned under Liberals, auditor says in report

Last Updated Dec 5, 2018 at 5:32 pm EDT

Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk talks about her annual report at a news conference in Toronto on Dec. 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Ontario’s social assistance costs ballooned under the previous Liberal government but the system failed to help recipients become self-reliant or consistently ensure that only those eligible received support, the province’s auditor general said Wednesday.

In a sweeping annual report, Bonnie Lysyk said the number of Ontario Works cases has increased by almost 25 per cent since 2009, hiking costs up from $1.9 billion to nearly $3 billion.

The province has yet to collect $730 million in overpayments made to recipients over several years – roughly $100 million occurred in the last four – but it does not track the cause of those overpayments, making it difficult to prevent them in the future, Lysyk said.

At the same time, the program only helped 10 to 13 per cent of recipients find work in the last five years, and the length of time people receive assistance has nearly doubled since 2009, jumping to nearly three years from 19 months, she 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,” Lysyk 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.”

Lysyk also examined the province’s disability support, saying that appeals on Ontario Disability Support Program decisions made up more than 40 per cent of the workload at Legal Aid clinics in the last year. The province could save about $20 million on legal aid annually if it reduced the number of appeals, which the government loses in 75 per cent of cases, she said.

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.

The Tories said the report demonstrates how ineffective leadership and reckless spending proliferated under their predecessors.

“It is the culmination of this historical mismanagement that has so threatened the credibility of our province’s finances,” said Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy. “That stops now.”

Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod said the findings highlight the need for social assistance reform, which the government is already working on.

“It is a proof point for the fact that this is a disjointed, patchwork system,” she said. “The outcomes simply aren’t there to get people back in the workforce.”

The Progressive Conservatives laid out a broad vision for social assistance reform last month, promising to cut red tape and encourage people back to work. People receiving disability support will be able to keep more of the money they earn as part of the changes, but critics said it will be harder to qualify for help.

The Opposition New Democrats said that while the report reflects Liberal mismanagement, it should send a warning to the Tories.

“The things that the auditor flags … are things that are already hallmarks of the Ford Conservatives,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said. “This means that where the Liberals let you down, the Ford Conservatives are making things worse.”

The Liberals, meanwhile, expressed concerns the government would use the report to justify austerity measures.

Interim leader John Fraser said he sees the Tories creating “a context for cuts and austerity that will impact the services that Ontarians depend on greatly.”

Lysyk scrutinized a number of areas, including the province’s transit agency, Metrolinx. She found the previous minister of transportation improperly influenced 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 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. 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 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. 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.

The report also said the expansion of the Ontario Student Assistance Program saw costs rise 25 per cent in a year, largely due to non-refundable grants, but enrolment only went up two per cent.

“As this was the first year for the new eligibility rules, it may not yet be possible to draw long-term conclusions,” she said.

There was some good news on health care, with the auditor finding that wait times for CT and MRI scans in emergency and urgent cases were well within targets set by the ministry of health. However, more work needs to be done to help patients whose cases are deemed less urgent.

The auditor also found that Health Quality Ontario, an agency meant to provide advice on improving care in the province, can’t prove it has made an impact despite spending $240 million over seven years. That’s because there is no obligation to implement its recommendations, she said.

Peter Graefe, a political science professor at McMaster University, said the report will give the 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.”

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 was $15 billion – far greater than believed – and to call for provincewide belt-tightening.