Province still not doing enough to protect taxpayers from big loans, auditor general finds

New Brunswick is still not doing enough to collect on money it is owed or to protect taxpayers from large loans going bad, despite hard lessons from the past, Auditor General Kim MacPherson said in her latest report to the legislature.

Raising the spectre of Atcon — the Miramichi company run by Robert Tozer that went bankrupt in 2010 costing the province $70 million in lost loans and guarantees — MacPherson said some changes that failure should have triggered in provincial lending policies have not been acted on.

"I am deeply concerned that the essence of some Atcon recommendations have not been implemented," MacPherson wrote in her report, released on Tuesday.

As an example, MacPherson highlighted how the province has accepted a $25 million personal guarantee from Nova Scotia businessman John Bragg to help secure provincial government loans for the establishment of blueberry and vegetable processing facilities in northern New Brunswick without independently verifying Bragg's ability to pay on the commitment.

Bragg is regularly referred to in media reports as a billionaire, and the province did receive separate assurances from his company's auditors and company treasurer of Bragg's personal net worth, but not to the extent MacPherson says is required.

The plants have been built and payments being made on them are current, but MacPherson said the $64.5 million the province has loaned Bragg's companies to build the processing facilities, and the experience of the Atcon failure, require the province follow lending rules precisely.

"In 2015, we recommended that when personal guarantees are provided, the province ensure there is adequate evidence to support the value of the personal assets such that there is sufficient net worth to safeguard taxpayers' money," MacPherson said.

"Given the Province's recent difficulties in collecting on the personal guarantee in the Atcon case, stronger measures should be applied to all personal guarantees to avoid similar scenarios in the future."

In a separate but related report, MacPherson also renewed her call for the province to improve its collection of debts, including on loans that are not being repaid, or alternatively to write off amounts it knows it will never collect.

MacPherson has complained regularly since 2013 that the province allows too many of its receivables, including taxes, loans and other amounts owed, to fall into arrears without taking action.

$116M in property tax overdue

She said this year property taxes overdue for more than 12 months have grown to $116 million, a 17 per cent increaseover the last five years, and need to be dealt with.

She also questioned why the province has taken no action to recover $15 million it sent to various First Nations in error prior to 2016 by miscalculating the revenue-sharing formula that governs video lottery terminals.

"We again recommend the Department of Finance and Treasury Board and [New Brunswick Lotteries and Gaming Corp.] resolve recovery of the unauthorized overpayments made to First Nations prior to January 1, 2016, as a result of an error in the calculation of gaming revenue," said MacPherson.

"We again recommend Service New Brunswick develop a strategy to collect overdue property tax accounts."

For debts it can't or won't recover, MacPherson said the province needs to stop presenting them as accounts receivable.

$295M in loans 'uncollectible'

Her report showed $295 million in provincial government loans, 34 per cent, are considered uncollectible, including 55 per cent of loans by Opportunities New Brunswick to business.

Those unpaid taxes and other monies owed to government that are considered to be lost should be presented that way, she said.

"At a minimum, accounts receivable and loans receivable balances beyond the limitations specified in the Limitation of Actions Act should be written off," she said.