Alberta auditor general finds 8 new ways province could keep better track of its spending

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Alberta's auditor general, Doug Wylie, says the government's financial statements have improved in accuracy compared to last year. However, they have neglected to act on a five-year-old recommendation to come up with a plan for a victims of crime fund. (CBC - image credit)
Alberta's auditor general, Doug Wylie, says the government's financial statements have improved in accuracy compared to last year. However, they have neglected to act on a five-year-old recommendation to come up with a plan for a victims of crime fund. (CBC - image credit)

Alberta's auditor general says the provincial government has no goals for the use of its victims of crime fund — five years after the office first recommended it.

Auditor Doug Wylie's latest report, released Thursday, also found a now-defunct government corporation paid laid off employees more severance than they were contractually obliged to, and left no paper trail to explain why.

Wylie's report included eight new recommendations for the government, most of which propose better estimating, tracking, or recording of internal machinations.

"They are necessary to demonstrate accountability," says Wylie's introductory letter. "Accountability is a cornerstone of public trust.

Although Wylie's team found $1.7-billion worth of understated expenses by the Alberta government last year, the 2020-21 books looked much better, he said.

"They heard our message last year in our reporting, and in the majority of cases, were quick to act and try to make sure that those situations didn't happen again," he said in a Thursday interview.

Among his team's findings was confusion about severance payouts when the government dissolved Energy Efficiency Alberta in September 2020. Created by the NDP government, the provincial corporation offered grants and programs to help citizens, businesses, municipalities and others make efficiency upgrades to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save money.

The auditor's report says 24 employees either lost their jobs or moved to another arm of government. The nearly $900,000 paid out in severance was more than their contracts entitled them to, said assistant auditor Eric Leonty.

There may have been good reasons for that, Leonty said, but the dissolving organization didn't have any proof, sending the auditor's staff chasing private lawyers to get some of the information.

The relevant government department — in this case, Environment and Parks — should have kept the information, the report says.

Government mum on plans for victims' fund

Although the province made progress on 22 previous auditor recommendations, it has failed to present a plan for its victims of crime and public safety fund, the report says.

The auditor first noted in February 2016 the justice department had no objectives for how to spend the surpluses from the fund.

Last year, the legislature passed a law to broaden the potential uses for that money. The cash, which comes from surcharges levied in court, was used for programs such as counselling for people traumatised by crime. The government now also uses it to help pay for a new "RAPID" law enforcement team of sheriffs and fish and wildlife officers, drug treatment courts and other measures.

As of last March, there was a nearly $64-million surplus in the fund.

This year, spending on victims' benefits has been cut in half, and there was a 21 per cent cut in funding to victims' organizations, the auditor found. The money that went to public safety measures rose by almost 50 per cent to $38 million.

The report says two MLAs were tasked with reviewing the program last fall, and gave recommendations to the justice minister in early 2021.

The justice minister's office did not reply to questions Thursday evening.

Leonty said the government has yet to provide the auditor's office with a plan for when they intend to have formal objectives for the victims' fund.

NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips said the government ignored advocates' concerns the fund would be pillaged for other uses. People harmed by crimes are now losing out on important programs and services to help them return to normal, she said.

"You're not willing to listen to the Albertans that you are hurting in making those decisions, but also you are flying in the face of good accounting standards," she said.

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