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Social assistance costs ballooned under Liberals

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TORONTO—Ontario's social assistance costs ballooned under the previous Liberal government but the system failed to help recipients become self-reliant or consistently ensure that only those eligible received support, the province's auditor general said yesterday.

In a sweeping annual report, Bonnie Lysyk said the number of Ontario Works cases has increased by almost 25 percent since 2009, hiking costs up from $1.9 billion to nearly $3 billion.

The province has yet to collect $730 million in overpayments made to recipients over several years—roughly $100 million occurred in the last four—but it does not track the cause of those overpayments, making it difficult to prevent them in the future, Lysyk noted.

At the same time, the program only helped 10-13 percent of recipients find work in the last five years.

And the length of time people receive assistance has nearly doubled since 2009, jumping to nearly three years from 19 months, she added.

“A central finding in almost all of the audits this year was that spending of public monies did not consistently result in the cost-effective achievement of anticipated program benefits, or the proactive addressing of program risks,” Lysyk said.

“We also found that, contrary to what people would expect, the government did not always take all steps necessary to ensure that programs are providing financial assistance only to eligible people.”

Lysyk also examined the province's disability support, saying that appeals on Ontario Disability Support Program decisions made up more than 40 percent of the workload at Legal Aid clinics in the last year.

The province could save about $20 million on legal aid annually if it reduced the number of appeals, which the government loses in 75 percent of cases, she noted.

Since the Progressive Conservatives formed a majority government in June, the auditor's report deals with the actions of the previous Liberal regime in 15 value-for-money audits.

The Tories said the report demonstrates how ineffective leadership and reckless spending proliferated under their predecessors.

“It is the culmination of this historical mismanagement that has so threatened the credibility of our province's finances,” said Treasury Board president Peter Bethlenfalvy.

“That stops now.”

Social Services minister Lisa MacLeod said the findings highlight the need for social assistance reform, which the government already is working on.

“It is a proof point for the fact that this is a disjointed, patchwork system,” she charged.

“The outcomes simply aren't there to get people back in the workforce.”

The Progressive Conservatives laid out a broad vision for social assistance reform last month, promising to cut red tape and encourage people back to work.

People receiving disability support will be able to keep more of the money they earn as part of the changes, but critics said it will be harder to qualify for help.

The Opposition New Democrats said that while the report reflects Liberal mismanagement, it should send a warning to the Tories.

“The things that the auditor flags . . . are things that are already hallmarks of the Ford Conservatives,” NDP leader Andrea Horwath said.

“This means that where the Liberals let you down, the Ford Conservatives are making things worse.”

The Liberals, meanwhile, expressed concerns the government would use the report to justify austerity measures.

Interim leader John Fraser said he sees the Tories creating “a context for cuts and austerity that will impact the services that Ontarians depend on greatly.”

Lysyk scrutinized a number of areas, including the province's transit agency, Metrolinx.

She found the previous minister of transportation improperly influenced the selection of two GO Transit train stations—overriding the agency's own analysis that suggested the stations should not be built for at least a decade.

She also found that light-rail projects planned for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas incurred roughly $436 million in unnecessary costs since 2009 because of problems in the transit-planning process and how Metrolinx carries out its responsibilities.

“After certain projects were announced or agreed on, the provincial and municipal governments changed their decisions on what to build and when to build, even though significant investments had already been made,” Lysyk noted.

The report also includes a review of government advertising, which found the Liberals spent $62.5 million on advertising last year—the most in more than a decade.

The auditor said 30 percent of those ads would not have been approved under more stringent rules previously in place.

Another section of the report found the government could save money by hiring full-time IT staff instead of relying on consultants for long-term contracts.

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