Ontario auditor general exposes litany of government snafus in annual report
Examples include cracking highways, overspending on eHealth records, shoddy Metrolinx oversight of contractors, and a climate change plan that will do more in California than Ontario.
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Cracking highways, $8 billion spent on still-incomplete eHealth electronic medical records, a comedy of errors surrounding shoddy Metrolinx oversight of transit contractors, and a climate change plan that will do more in California than Ontario.
Those are some of a litany of government snafus exposed by auditor general Bonnie Lysyk in her annual two-volume, 1,063-page report to the Legislature on Wednesday.
The independent watchdog said there was a common theme that ran through her 13 value-for-money audits this year.
“It is important for everyone doing business with the government to keep in mind the concept of shared responsibility for the use of taxpayer money to deliver services, protect the environment, or design and build infrastructure,” said Lysyk.
Her audit of eHealth Ontario found the controversial agency’s work remained unfinished some 14 years after the computerized health records program was formally launched.
“The initiative has certainly advanced since our last audit in 2009,” said Lysyk.
“However it is still not possible to say if it is on budget because the government never set an overall budget,” she said.
“In effect, we cannot say if $8 billion is a reasonable figure.”
That amount includes $3 billion spent by eHealth, $1 billion by the Ministry of Health and agencies such as Cancer Care Ontario, and $4 billion by community care access centres across the province.
As first disclosed by the Star on Oct. 13, the government was so worried about Lysyk’s audit that it retained former TD Bank CEO Ed Clark, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s business guru, to report back with recommendations for improvement.
Last week in a 48-page review, Clark said while eHealth is doing a good job, its mandate should be changed so it has “an explicit focus on technology service delivery and to ensure the agency is held to account for delivery” of those services.
The agency has been dogged by problems, including an expense-account scandal where private consultants earning $3,000 a day billed taxpayers for $3.99 Choco-Bite cookies and $1.65 Tim Hortons tea.
Lysyk found the seven main eHealth projects former premier Dalton McGuinty’s government deemed as priorities in 2010 were only about 80 per cent done — despite a 2015 deadline for completion. Those are now expected to be finished by March.
The auditor also expressed concern that Ontario’s highways are cracking up — long before they should — in some cases just a year or two after being repaved.
That’s because contractors are using poor quality asphalt, costing the government millions in repairs and adding to drivers’ frustrations.
The poor pavement problem was identified some 16 years ago — the diluted asphalt can’t withstand the cold winter weather — yet oversight of testing is lax, leading to tampering.
Queen’s Park has also failed to deal with questionable road contractors and, in fact, continues to pay some bonuses and allows them to bid on future jobs.
The auditor general cited one case where a portion of Highway 7 was in disrepair a year after being paved.
On Highway 403, paving in 2006 was redone in 2008 and again in 2011, and is estimated repairs will be needed yet again, costing millions. The company in question received $686,000 bonus payout.
Roads are supposed to last 15 years before needing upgrades.
While the Ministry of Transportation may say road quality has gone up 8 per cent over the last decade, the auditor general countered that could include roads that have been repaved as cracks repairs are not tracked.
The GTA’s regional transit agency Metrolinx has gone off the rails when it comes to properly completing projects on time and on budget, Lysyk said, citing a litany of problems including lax oversight of work that cost taxpayers “significant amounts.”
She highlighted a pedestrian bridge over 14 lanes of Highway 401 to the GO station at Pickering, in which an unnamed contractor made mistakes such as installing a bridge truss upside down, but was hired back for phase two of the project and was eventually fired after continued “poor performance” that included careless welding that will take $1 million to fix.
And yet the company, which was paid fully for the first contract and 99 per cent of the value of the second contract, was hired for another $39-million project.
“Metroxlinx does not have a process in place to identify poorly performing contractors when it is making the decision to award contracts,” Lysyk said, noting the Pickering bridge contractor had “no experience” installing trusses.
“Thus, contractors can take advantage of this and continue to perform poorly without repercussions.”
Metrolinx, which operates GO Transit, also “rarely takes action” against contractors for missing deadlines, resulting in budget overruns, the audit concluded.
Lysyk cited an example where errors by design consultants in a random sample of six projects cost taxpayers an extra $22.5 million, and another case where projects such as the Pickering GO parking garage and Burlington GO station building completed up to 25 months behind schedule cost $2 million for consultants to shepherd them to completion.
The audit also found Metrolinx “does not know that it is getting what it pays for” in rail contracts with CN and CP, with CN’s construction charges up to 130 per cent higher than a competitor’s and no questions asked by the transit agency.
On one project, Metrolinx paid for new parts in railway construction and got used ones instead.
“It does not check to ensure that parts are new,” said Lysyk.
While public transit does help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the auditor raised questions about the government’s much-ballyhooed climate-change scheme.
She warned the cap-and-trade program won’t come close to meeting its 2020 target for reducing emissions, echoing concerns recently raised by the province’s environmental commissioner.
Just 3.8 megatonnes of the projected 18.7 in reduced emissions are likely to be in Ontario — with the province planning to “take the credit” for its own as well as the 14.9 megatonnes that are actually cut in Quebec and California.
“The (environment) ministry has not publicly said that it intends to achieve Ontario’s target by counting reductions achieved in its partner jurisdictions,” says the report.
Because the province is planning to link its system — something the auditor general notes has not been formally signed off on — it allows polluters to purchase allowances from outside the province if available.
That could even allow businesses to buy extra emission allowances, hampering conservation efforts.
She said that through the allowances, Quebec and California could receive $466 million by 2020 and some $2.2 billion “will leave the Ontario economy” by 2030.
The auditor general also took the government to task for a 66-per-cent hike in spending on advertising after Wynne “weakened” a law banning partisan ads at taxpayer expense.
The $49.9 million included a spate of ads on the now-defunct Ontario Retirement Pension Plan and “self-congratulatory” spots, including one about improving the environment that depicted animals clapping.
“Ontarians have, in the past year, paid millions of dollars for advertising designed primarily to present the government in a positive light rather than to inform,” Lysyk wrote in her report.
She also slammed an ad that claimed “more Ontario students are reaching their potential than ever before” and boasting of a “world-class” school system that her office would have rejected before the Government Advertising Act was watered down.
“These vague scripts would not have passed under the previous act because they appeared aimed at fostering a positive impression of the government and did not provide the public with any useful information.”