When so many New Brunswickers are having a tough time keeping up with rent increases, the government shouldn't be paying for secondary residences for civil servants, says Green Party Leader David Coon.
"I don't see any rationale whatsoever for the accommodations of a deputy minister to be covered unless they're travelling for work," Coon said Wednesday. "Not coming to their job and residing somewhere else."
According to the government's listing of senior executive travel and other expenses, Yennah Hurley, the deputy minister of the Department of Tourism, has a secondary residence paid for in Fredericton.
Hurley is a resident of Quispamsis, a community outside Saint John roughly an 80-minute drive from her government office.
"If you're a public servant and you accept a job somewhere else different than where you live, then you have two choices — move or commute," said Coon.
"But taxpayers shouldn't be paying for secondary accommodation or secondary lodging to be able to do your job."
While cabinet ministers who live in other parts of the province are normally granted a "monthly living allowance," a spokesperson for the Treasury Board said there is only one deputy minister receiving an allowance to cover accommodations in Fredericton.
According to her expense claims posted on the government's website, Hurley claims a $955 monthly living allowance, a monthly car allowance of $558.54, and a $690 monthly amount called an "expense allowance." All that adds up to a minimum monthly claim of $2,203.54. She also gets mileage per kilometre on top of that.
That's all in addition to her salary, which falls somewhere between $150,000 and $174,999, according to the government's listing of employee salaries.
Hurley's appointment by Premier Blaine Higgs drew criticism in 2019 from some who said she wasn't qualified to be a deputy minister, especially since the Tourism Department's budget had been slashed by 37 per cent.
"So you want to cut, but then the premier gets to hire a personal services consultant, a friend of his that he met two years ago," Liberal MLA Jacques LeBlanc said at the time.
In 2012, Hurley toured the province in an RV and was a weekly guest on CBC's afternoon radio show Shift New Brunswick, dispensing tips about what to see and do around the province.
In 2019, amid criticism of her appointment, Hurley said her experience as a self-employed tourism operator was an advantage.
"Budget cuts allow people or challenge people to be more innovative or more creative," she said. "That's where I come in. I'm an entrepreneur. I've worked with tight budgets before."
Hurley was asked for an interview on Wednesday, but so far, has not responded. A spokesperson for the department did respond, by email, to ask the nature of the request. Despite further inquires from CBC, no one replied by publication time.
Jennifer Vienneau, the director of communications for Finance and Treasury Board, did respond to questions about expenses and said "certain ministerial staff," as stipulated in the terms and conditions of their employment, are entitled to claim the monthly living allowance.
She said deputy ministers on personal services contracts are responsible for negotiating their own terms and contracts with the Office of the Premier.
Coon said it's not the first time he's complained about civil servants receiving a living allowance.
"I've been through this once before with a former minister of transportation and infrastructure staff who had their lodgings covered in Fredericton. So this should not be happening again."
He said he would be concerned about such allowances at any time, but it's particularly incongruous now.
Earlier this week, the NB Coalition for Tenants Rights asked the province for relief for tenants, including retroactive rent caps, a moratorium on evictions, and a rent bank fund for people struggling to pay the rent.
Issues related to tenants' rights in New Brunswick have come to the forefront after a number of buildings in cities across the province were bought up, only to see rent increases.
In the letter sent to Premier Blaine Higgs on Tuesday, the coalition recommended a two per cent rent cap retroactive to Sept. 1, 2020, be put in place until the COVID-19 vaccine is available to all, and the province reaches the green phase of recovery.
In January Higgs said there were no plans to implement rent controls during the pandemic, but he has asked for a report to see if rent increases are a widespread issue.
On Wednesday, in his state of the province address, Higgs acknowledged growing concerns about affordable housing and said there would be a 90-day review of the rental market in New Brunswick.