Auditor General Darren Noonan says he will proceed with the second and third phases of his review of the P.E.I. government's COVID-19 spending, even though he remains convinced he won't uncover any new details.
Noonan said the review of the COVID-19 spending has meant he's had to defer a number of other investigations, including an audit of Health PEI's wait times and a review of the Island's environmental goals and benchmarks — to see whether they are realistic and can be met.
But Noonan said following meetings with the public accounts committee and executive council, he decided to proceed with the COVID-19 review.
"We concluded that it's a lot of money that was spent on different programs that did affect taxpayers, so we did feel it was important to disclose the spending with as much detail as possible … that's why we did agree to do it," Noonan said.
"The downfall is that it's kind of set back our office's work plan by 12 to 18 months."
In late July, the auditor general released Phase 1 of a review of the programs the province initiated in response to the pandemic.
Needs more resources
The report identified 21 programs supporting individuals, businesses and organizations. The programs had a total budget of $52 million.
The report found the province obtained appropriate authorizations for its COVID-19 programs, but weaknesses were found. Those weaknesses included funding being provided even though the applicant did not meet all the eligibility criteria, errors in payment calculations and treasury board approvals not always being obtained when budgets were exceeded.
In August, Noonan wrote Premier Dennis King raising concerns about Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the audit, because of the time it was taking and its impact on other audits.
In the letter, Noonan wrote: "We are considering if the additional audit work required to complete Phase 2 and 3 will result in any significant additional recommendations."
Premier Dennis King said when he asked the auditor general to take a look at the spending, he wanted to make sure there was public confidence in what his government was doing and how they were doing it. He said he's pleased to hear the auditor general will continue to review the spending, which continues to roll out for some programs.
"I just think the people of Prince Edward Island, the taxpayers of Prince Edward Island, need to know that that money is being spent in the right places, and there's adequate performance evaluation taking place as we spend it," King said in an interview outside the P.E.I. legislature.
"I just encourage the auditor general to keep up his work until such time as we can say COVID is complete."
'It is absolutely extra work'
Hannah Bell, Green MLA for Charlottetown-Belvedere and the chair of the public accounts committee, said "we recognize, obviously, it is absolutely extra work, but it's work that the people of P.E.I. need to see happening.
"We need to be really clear that the money that we received from the federal government to be disbursed in P.E.I., remember this is hundreds of millions of dollars, … we need to make sure we understand where that money went, and that it achieved what it was meant to achieve," said Bell.
The public accounts committee suggested the auditor's office use the authority under the Audit Act to ask for additional resources.
Noonan said he's preparing a business plan to request four additional auditors, but even if that is approved by the legislature's all-party Legislative Management Committee, it will take time to recruit experienced auditors.
"This type of work is specialized, so it's not just an entry-levelled person that you can bring in," said Noonan. "It takes time, I would expect it'll be a 12- to 18-month recruiting process to find four qualified people."
'We'd be open to that funding'
King said he'd support any request for additional resources for the auditor general's office.
"If more resources are required to make sure that that office is doing as thorough a job as they believe they need to do, then we'd be open to that funding," he said.
The auditor general will report on Phase 2 and Phase 3 in the spring of 2022. The office is expected to release its follow up on Phase 1 in July of 2022. The follow up on Phase 2 and Phase 3 is expected for spring 2023.
There are other audits underway. The office plans to release an audit on property taxes before the end of this year. The annual report, which this year will primarily be an examination of the province's finances, is expected to be made public in January.
Noonan said neither government nor his office thought when the request was made in April 2020 to review the COVID-19 spending programs that the pandemic would be still going on over a year and a half later.
"The COVID work has just expanded beyond what peoples' expectations were," said Noonan.
"I don't think there's any malintentions on the government's part."