Alberta auditor criticizes crime victim fund
EDMONTON – Alberta’s auditor general says the Justice Department has lost its way regarding its multimillion-dollar fund to help victims of crime.
Merwan Saher said in a report issued Wednesday that the fund is racking up millions of dollars in surplus cash, while at the same time cutting money to aid groups.
“These excess funds are sitting unused without the department having a clear plan for intended future use,” Saher said in the report.
“Business and budgeting practices are potentially restricting operational decisions intended to better serve victims of crime.”
The fund pays out compensation to injured victims and uses what is left over to help police and other community groups with their victim-support programs.
The fund doesn’t get money from general revenues. Its budget comes from a 15 per cent surcharge on provincial and federal fines — a growing pot of money that is expected to hit $56 million this year.
Saher notes that this has created a budgeting anomaly because in recent years the government has ordered the fund — even though it doesn’t get money from general revenues — to reduce its spending given tight economic times.
The result, said Saher, is a double whammy.
The money from the surcharge can’t be used for anything else, so the fund’s surplus has been left to grow — with little return on investment — while grants to community and police victim services outreach programs have been reduced.
Those groups saw a $350,000 funding cut in the last budget year alone despite a rise in demand for services, he said.
Some groups have started doing their own fundraising to cover off costs, he added.
The fund took in just under $36 million in the last budget year from the surcharges, a figure that is expected to grow given that the province is increasing fines for traffic offences.
It paid out almost $17 million in aid to victims of crime and spent another $14 million to help police and community groups.
The money for victim compensation is a straightforward legislated payout, but cash for police and community groups is discretionary.
Saher said that is where the second major problem lies, because the Justice Department doesn’t have a game plan on how to best spend any leftover money. And, he said, it has no way to determine if the money that is already being spent is effective.
“The department does not have a current, approved strategy for the fund that sets out achievable, measurable goals or targets.”
Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said she flagged the crime victims fund problem when she took over the portfolio last year.
She said she has been working with the department and with stakeholders to address the surplus and come up with a long-term business plan.
A preliminary report is to be sent to Saher by March 31.
Ganley agreed change is needed.
“I’ve met with a number of victim support groups and victims’ advocates who feel that those (programs) are underfunded, so I think maybe there are better things that we can be doing with that money.”
© 2016 The Canadian Press