Millions of development dollars go unspent in N.B.

A New Brunswick Liberal opposition critic wants to know why the province is being so stingy with development projects, significantly underspending over two years.

Jacques LeBlanc, the MLA for Shediac-Beaubassin-Cap-Pelé, raised the questions during a legislative committee session last week when the new president of the Regional Development Corporation, commonly called RDC, presented annual reports for 2021 and 2022.

Those reports showed that two years ago, the Crown corporation that oversees hundreds of public development projects in New Brunswick, had underspent its special operating agency's budget by 23 per cent. The saved money is significant. Even though the corporation had close to $160 million in revenues, mostly from Ottawa, the province spent closer to $135 million.

The money was supposed to be for a number of multi-year projects negotiated between the feds and the province on everything from public transit, to building affordable homes to improving drinking and wastewater systems.

The difference - a little over $24 million - was put into a surplus that's been accumulating over the last several years and eventually reached almost $61 million.

The corporation's operating results showed similar frugalness.

At budget time, the province estimated it would spend $106 million running its four development programs, but by the year end, it had only spent $86 million.

The projects under this budget are near and dear to municipal leaders and people from the nonprofit sector looking to build new rinks, community halls, arts centres and the like.

"It's too easy to put a report together, take money that was earmarked for projects and dump it into the general surplus, and then pay down debt," LeBlanc told Brunswick News after the committee session. "There are people who desperately want these projects, especially in rural communities, where there is major underspending."

The Higgs Progressive Conservative government has run a string of surpluses since coming to power in 2018 and is projecting another $247-million surplus at the fiscal year end March 31.

Audited figures for the previous fiscal year, only one year before the underspending LeBlanc complained about at RDC, showed the province had a record $1-billion surplus.

Premier Blaine Higgs has lauded the province's financial results, as have some fiscally minded organizations, such as the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, because New Brunswick is the only province that weathered the pandemic without going into deficit spending and paid down a significant amount of debt, $2 billion since 2019.

Indeed, the province has had seven years in a row of balanced budgets, stretching back to the last two years of the Gallant Liberal administration. But critics say this all happened while housing became unaffordable for tens of thousands of New Brunswickers and publicly funded health care has been in crisis, with long wait times at emergency rooms and delays in getting surgery or a family doctor.

Joel Dickinson, the new president of RDC, shouldered the questions during committee, but he's been on the job less than a month and wasn't in charge during the years of underspending.

A longtime civil servant, he was previously deputy chief operating officer within the Executive Council Office before taking the new role Jan. 26.

"Obviously those were some difficult years with COVID and some slippage, challenges with projects and project delays," Dickinson said when the Liberal politician brought up the underspending. "As you can appreciate, supply wasn't necessarily available on certain things and there were some delays that way."

He said the corporation had hired project executives into regions to help work with proponents, manage projects and see them through. However, he cautioned that the labour shortage, particularly in the trades, was making it difficult to complete projects.

But LeBlanc remains frustrated. He said people who ask for the projects should worry about finding the right building supplies, equipment and workers.

"That stuff has nothing to do with RDC," the politician said. "Their job is to approve projects and give you a timeline to complete the project. You get it approved and then you get 'er done. I don't see why RDC has to take on the responsibility for contractors and supply chains and all of that."

John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Gleaner