New Brunswick government emergency aid for laid-off workers rolled out in the first weeks of the pandemic with poor control, weak contracts and inadequate monitoring, according to a new report from the Auditor General.
The New Brunswick Workers’ emergency income benefit was hastily put together in March 2020 to provide $ 900 in one-time payments to people who were laid off when their employers were ordered to shut down.
“We recognize that the department operated under an accelerated timeline and external pressure to develop the NBWEIB program,” the report, presented to lawmakers Thursday morning, said.
“We believe this led to gaps in the planning process and implementation.”
The program distributed $ 37 million before the federal government stepped in with Canada’s emergency aid.
The report by Acting Auditor General Janice Leahy says the province failed to get social security numbers from 827 people out of the 40,000 who receive benefits, “which increases the risk of fraud.”
The Department of Continuing Education, Training and Labor, which ran the program, provided “little evidence of programming or justification for important decisions” and there was no appeal process.
But Leahy also acknowledges in her report how quickly officials had to move to create the program.
The department had only five days to design the program and negotiate a contract with the Canadian Red Cross to run it, the report says.
“We understand that the department was tasked with implementing this program at short notice,” the report states.
“However, the weaknesses identified are important to understand in the planning of future relief programs.”
Minister for Continuing Education, Training and the Labor Market, Trevor Holder, told reporters that in March 2020 it was important to address the anxiety of redundant workers, and he was pleased to see that only two per cent of the approved demands were questionable.
“It was actually very remarkable that we reached so many New Brunswickers as quickly and as efficiently as possible,” he said.
“This was a get-it-done moment, and that’s what I operated on, and we got it done.”
In June, Holder’s department announced that it was launching its own review of the program, saying that anyone who was not eligible but who received money would be asked to pay it back.
New Brunswick confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 12, 2020, and the government declared a state of emergency, including the closure of non-essential corporations, a week later.
Premier Blaine Higgs announced the relief program on March 24, and details were rolled out five days later on March 29.
The report quotes an official as saying to the audit team that “we did not have time to effectively plan, troubleshoot or resolve issues.”
The province initially budgeted $ 75 million for the program, but a flood of registrations on the first day led the cabinet to increase it to $ 100 million.
But after Ottawa launched the federal CERB program on April 6, the province decided to wind up its program ahead of schedule.
Only $ 54.5 million was shifted to the Red Cross, of which $ 38.7 million was distributed to the recipients. The province withdrew the remaining $ 15.8 million from the Red Cross in January 2021.
The cost of the program was tracked in the province’s financial books for 2019-2020, reducing an expected profit for that year.
Investment in internet services in rural areas with little success
Leahy’s report also describes nearly two decades of public spending aimed at improving rural Internet services with few visible results.
“We could not conclude whether funding for rural internet achieves the desired result,” it states.
The report says successive provincial governments have spent $ 39 million on improving rural Internet since 2003, yet 36 percent of rural households still did not have access in 2019.
“Despite these investments, rural households continue to struggle with lack of connectivity and low-speed Internet services.”
According to the report, the first phase of $ 10 million in the province’s latest program:
Lacked bandwidth to reach the goal of adding fixed wireless Internet access to 10,000 homes.
Was more than a year delayed upgrade of 15 towers needed to transfer data.
Missed a 2020 deadline to offer internet service at a speed of 100/10 Mbps.
So customers charged $ 119.99 a month for the service when it was finally available, because the contract’s requirement of $ 99.99 only lasted until March 2020, before the service was available.
Leahy said the COVID-19 pandemic made the lack of high-speed service more acute when public health rules restricted personal services.
The report states that Opportunities New Brunswick and Regional Development Corporation selected Xplornet, a New Brunswick-based company, to provide the service without a competitive bidding process.
ONB accepted Xplornet’s statement that its proposed fix “could not be replicated … by any other provider” through a public bidding process and did not verify whether other companies offered the same solution.
The two provincial agencies did not verify the “completeness and accuracy” of Xplornet’s proposals and instead supported the company’s own needs assessment and design.
“In our view, the ONB and RDC failed to ensure that these were designed to meet the needs of rural New Brunswickers,” the audit said.
It adds that Xplornet’s technical solution “was not designed with sufficient bandwidth to enable 100% participation” of rural households.
In an email to CBC News, Xplornet spokeswoman Johanne Senécal said many of the report’s findings were “simply inaccurate” and the company had provided coverage for the 10,000 households it was to reach in phase one of the program.
She said Leahy and her staff “never sought information directly from Xplornet”, and the report mixed elements from the first and second phases together, “leading to a host of false assumptions and allegations.”
Senécal said it was her response to the report “at first glance”, but the company would review it in more detail.
Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West Progressive Conservative MLA Andrea Anderson-Mason said she was pleased to see the report when she raised many of the same issues publicly a year ago.
“It’s something I regularly hear from my constituents,” she said.
Xplornet had been hired to improve the land service in 2008, and its new application “was presented as an upgrade or a continuation of this work,” the report said, but the province did not check whether other service providers were now able to do so. same work.
In contrast, Nova Scotia looked at 15 different companies as they searched for a rural ISP.
ONB also paid some claims in advance and did not follow its own policy requiring it to check that the terms of the contract were met before releasing funds.
The province is expected to put more money into phase two of the program, and Leahy told reporters “there are certain risks that we saw” that the government can avoid if it looks at the pitfalls from phase one.
The report also says that the lack of a single department or office that is clearly responsible for rural internet contributed to the weak oversight.
ONB Minister Arlene Dunn said in an interview that in order to solve this problem, the responsibility for the case was recently handed over to the main information office under the Ministry of Finance and Finance.