Yukon NDP caucus grills government on financial transparency

Yukon NDP Health Critic Jan Stick and Highways and Public Works Critic Lois Moorcroft asked the following questions about the government's refusal to release operations and maintenance estimates for the Whistle Bend continuing care complex on April 26, 2016:

Question re: Whistle Bend continuing care facility

Jan Stick (Riverdale South): Two weeks ago, I asked the Minister of Health and Social Services for the operation and maintenance costs of the new Whistle Bend care facility. He was not able to provide those numbers at that time. Last week in the House, this minister gave us an estimate of $28 million per year for O&M. This number was based on a $500-per-bed-per-day calculation. Yesterday the minister flip-flopped and said that the department did not have an approved budget yet for the O&M costs for running the Whistle Bend continuing care facility — and I quote: “That’s a couple of years out.”

Mr. Speaker, does the Minister for Health and Social Services have the operation and maintenance costs and budget for this facility or not?

Health and Social Services minister Mike Nixon (Porter Creek South): In addressing the member opposite, she will certainly be aware that when she first brought this question up on the floor of the Legislature, I didn’t have the budget book with me, but I followed through the very next day and provided the estimate numbers for O&M for the Whistle Bend continuing care facility. The member opposite is correct — at approximately $500 per day per person who is staying there. That’s forecasted in the 2018-19 budget at $28 million.

This $28 million is forecasted and budgeted for, and we certainly recognize that it is very expensive to provide this level of care to seniors at a point in time in their life when they need it, but this Yukon Party government is committed to doing that.

Stick: I thank the minister for that answer.

The $28-million estimate provided for the Whistle Bend continuing care facility is, by this Minister of Health and Social Services’ own admission, based on the operating cost of the Copper Ridge facility. According to the minister, these costs will be very similar. But we also know that Whistle Bend will be offering a wider range of care options not available now. These include beds or a house for palliative care, mental health care, and high-acuity care for those who require a high level of medical care on an urgent but temporary basis.

Mr. Speaker, how does the minister believe the costs of operating Whistle Bend will be the same when the proposed range of services will be so different?

Nixon: In addressing the member opposite — because we see the trend for more Yukoners to want to remain here in the territory, this government has been very planful and forward-looking. The facility is ready-made to double in size with many of the supports required for an expanded facility already built in. If there is a need to expand this facility in the future, we expect the costs per bed to actually decline.

On one hand, the opposition wants to build a facility in every single community — one that we believe will bankrupt the territory — but they don’t seem to understand the costs of doing that business.

I ask, Mr. Speaker: If the opposition is critical of these costs and feels it is too expensive, at what point in time do they draw that line and not provide this level of care to seniors? This Yukon Party government is committed to providing this level of care and will continue on with these investments.

Stick: Mr. Speaker, the current total operation and maintenance costs of continuing care is $41 million. Even if one accepts the minister’s low estimate of $28 million per year for the Whistle Bend continuing care, this is a 70-percent increase in the operation and maintenance costs of continuing care.

How will we be paying for these additional operational costs at Whistle Bend? Will we see cuts to other continuing care services, or are we committing to a budget that we cannot afford?

Premier Darrell Pasloski (Mountainview): Mr. Speaker, what we do know, and what Yukoners are comforted by, is that this has been a government that has been focused throughout its mandate on being responsible with Yukoners’ money.

We know that families and small businesses have to live within their means, and Yukoners expect this Yukon Party government to do the same. We continue to not raise taxes. In fact, we have lowered taxes for small businesses; we have lowered taxes for all Yukon taxpayers. We continue to run through this mandate with modest surpluses and we are now the only jurisdiction left in this country with money in the bank. We can talk about the Ontario Liberals who this year will spend $11.4 billion just to service their debt or the fact that the Alberta NDP is now borrowing money to pay wages. Yukoners are comforted to know that we continue to focus on the economy, on jobs, on Yukoners’ health care and on education and ensure that we do it while we live within our means.

Question re: Financial administration practices

Lois Moorcroft (Copperbelt South): Mr. Speaker, can the Minister of Highways and Public Works confirm that his department is required by section of the Financial Administration Manual to produce budget submissions that include the operation and maintenance costs for any capital project?

Pasloski: Mr. Speaker, I am truly astounded that the opposition would go to this level — basically implying that all of the people involved in this process — all of the individuals who worked through this process to get this project to where it is — are doing so in violation of the law. I am very disappointed that again we hear the opposition blaming and accusing government employees of doing something improper or, in this case, illegal.

Moorcroft: Mr. Speaker, the minister responsible for Highways and Public Works has refused to stand up in this House and answer my questions on the procurement of the Whistle Bend continuing care facility. Now the Premier has.

The Auditor General of Canada has criticized this government for designing and building hospitals “… without knowing the incremental costs — costs that should have been available to decision makers before approval…” It seems that same criticism is going to be applied to the continuing care facility. The Financial Administration Manual requires — and I quote: “… total estimated capital cost of the project… including the resulting O&M impact of the project.”

This government needs to be open and accountable. Why is the Minister of Highways and Public Works refusing to provide the estimates from the Partnerships BC study? Did he simply fail to get them for the Management Board submission?

Pasloski: Mr. Speaker, it sounds like a little bit of grandstanding by the member opposite in the direction of our potential candidate in the riding of Copperbelt South. The Auditor General has, year-in and year-out, provided an unqualified opinion that clearly states that this government has net financial resources, that we have money in the bank.

We have shown that we have budgeted capital to build the Whistle Bend facility. If you look in the outbound years, you will see that we have budgeted the operation and maintenance money within our budget to be able to operate this facility. All the while, Mr. Speaker, we continue to show modest surpluses and money in the bank. That is something that Yukoners count on us and we are very proud that we continue to operate in this jurisdiction in a manner that is different from all of the other jurisdictions in this country that are borrowing money today to pay for services today and asking their grandkids to pay for it later.

Moorcroft: Mr. Speaker, when conducting an analysis, Partnerships BC states — and I quote: “In addition to the capital costs, operating costs, rehabilitation costs, bid development and financing costs and owner’s costs must also be included”.

Mr. Speaker, will the Minister of Highways and Public Works stand up and tell the Yukon public whether Partnerships BC’s $875,000 procurement study produced the O&M costs to operate Whistle Bend with its full suite of services and not a rough estimate based on Copper Ridge?

Nixon: Certainly, Partnerships BC was a valuable participant in the Whistle Bend continuing care procurement. They have built many projects of this scale and we certainly relied on their expertise to assist us with this project. Partnerships BC ensured that Yukoners received value for money during the procurement and tendering of the capital construction of this particular project. Health and Social Services was responsible for the development of O&M costs of this project. This project has met all policy and legislative obligations that were required as it moved forward and I would certainly like to extend my thanks to the officials who were involved to ensure that this project was contained in our long-term forecast.

As the Premier alluded, we remain the last jurisdiction in Canada with money in the bank and this Yukon Party government is extremely proud of the investment we’ve made in Yukon seniors.