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Smart meters, MaRS bad value for tax dollar: Auditor

By Antonella Artuso, Queen's Park Bureau Chief

Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk speaks to media at Queen's Park about her annual audit of Ontario government business on Tuesday, December 9, 2014. (Michael Peake/Toronto Sun)

Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk speaks to media at Queen's Park about her annual audit of Ontario government business on Tuesday, December 9, 2014. (Michael Peake/Toronto Sun)

TORONTO - 

Ontarians paid $1.9 billion for smart meters that weren’t so smart.

In fact, risky government schemes like the smart meters and the MaRS bailout have squeezed billions of dollars out of Ontarians’ pockets with no evidence that they got good value for their money, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found in her annual report released Tuesday.

At the same time, almost as many people with developmental disabilities are waiting for service as are receiving it, and at the current placement pace it would take 22 years to clear the backlog for residential care even if no one else applied during that time.

Lysyk’s report also noted that oversight of licensed child-care sites came up short, with half the centres surveyed unable to prove that all their staff had required background checks.

Meanwhile, the government’s much-hyped public-private infrastructure projects have been a very pricy choice for taxpayers.

Ontarians are spending $8 billion more on 74 projects than if they had been delivered by the public sector, Lysyk said.

Infrastructure Ontario’s most infamous loan — $235 million to the controversial MaRS Phase 2 building project — has “uncertain” value for taxpayers and creates the perception of a bailout to a U.S.-based private-sector developer, the auditor concluded.

Lysyk expressed special “concern” over the province’s level of debt, which is growing at a faster rate than the economy.

Even if the Kathleen Wynne government meets its goal of balancing the books in 2017-18, the province will have put $325 billion on the public credit card or $23,000 for every single resident of Ontario.

“That’s a heavy load,” Lysyk said, urging the government to assess more carefully the benefits of investments before cracking open the public purse.

On smart meters, auditors concluded that the rollout cost $1.9 billion — or $81 to $544 per meter — but the expected benefits to hydro customers have not been realized.

Lysyk said the meters have not reduced people’s bills, moved power usage off peak times or lowered the need for more generation.

Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli and Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid came out swinging after the report’s release, challenging the auditor’s numbers and conclusions.

Chiarelli said the smart meters only cost $1.4 billion and are invaluable in achieving conservative goals.

The auditor also noted that Ontario exported electricity at a $2.6-billion loss between 2006 and 2013, even as hydro customers spent an extra $50 billion since 2006 topping up power costs above market rate through the global adjustment fee.

On private-public sector partnerships, Lysyk said the government may have spent too much building massive projects because it failed to assess the true cost of private sector financing.

Duguid said public-private partnerships are a net gain to the taxpayer because the risk of cost overruns that are significant in many large-scale public sector projects are not assumed by the taxpayer.

In another shocking auditor finding, the province doesn’t know how many residents are immunized for diseases such as measles, and child immunization rates are below the level necessary to prevent transmission of disease.

Questionable flu vaccination billings were highlighted, as taxpayers paid 21,000 times to have physicians and pharmacists vaccinate the same person twice.

A vaccination registry being implemented by the Ontario government is $85 million over budget and may not provide the data necessary to identify areas with low immunization coverage rates, the report said.

Inaccurate ordering of vaccines in 2012-13 meant $3-million worth expired before it could be used.

Ontario also has no process in place to ensure that new adult immigrants are immunized before or just after arriving in the province, the report found.

Defined benefit pension plans in Ontario are increasingly underfunded, now short $75 billion, the report also said.

The number crunchers noted that the province spends less than most other jurisdictions on community supervision programs so the fact that reoffending rates haven’t dropped shouldn’t come as a real surprise.

AG REPORT HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Province’s debt on track to hit $325 billion, or $23,000 for every Ontarian
  • The rate of adult reoffending has gone up, higher-risk offenders under supervised
  • Licensed child-care operators don’t report all serious occurrences, inspections late
  • Vast majority of Ontario’s defined pension plans underfunded
  • Ontario health officials don’t know how many people immunized for diseases such as measles
  • The $1.9-billion Smart Meter rollout yet to justify cost to hydro customers
  • Key recommendation in Walkerton tainted water inquiry still not implemented 14 years later
  • Ontario spending $8 billion more than needed on 74 public-private infrastructure projects
  • MaRS Phase 2 loan a financial risk to taxpayers
  • No co-ordinated system in place to deliver palliative care services to the dying
  • Immigration selection program seriously flawed, no ban for fraudulent applicants
  • Wait list for developmental disability services almost as long as those served
  • Nomination papers to apply for federal permanent residency left unlocked all day

antonella.artuso@sunmedia.ca

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