Auditor reveals $8,400 Christmas party for health authority staff

Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup appears before the public accounts committee at the legislature in Halifax on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. FILE - Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Financial controls remain a problem “year after year” at the Nova Scotia Health Authority, where a lack of guidance led to a bill of more than $8,400 for a Christmas party, says the province’s auditor general.

In a report released Tuesday, Michael Pickup says the health authority is one of four government organizations with “significant” repeat financial control issues.

Pickup says a lack of policy direction meant it was “unclear if expenses met health authority expectations” in the case of the party, which was attended by 146 people.

“You have unclear guidance, the policies were ambiguous, and then you have an expenditure like this occur that is a small example of what can happen,” Pickup told reporters.

In an emailed response, the health authority said the Christmas party was not funded by taxpayer money and was not for staff.

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“The expense came from a restricted fund (for specific project or initiative) and was funded by a private company. Even so, NSHA agrees it was not an appropriate expense.”

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NDP Leader Gary Burrill singled out the party as an example of what’s not happening at the health authority, which he said was formed under the rationale that it would lead to greater efficiencies in the management of the health system.

“This was all touted on the grounds that there would be central control and greater efficiency. But I think the auditor general has said here . . . that public resources have to be dealt with stewardship and care and in the case of the Christmas party he didn’t see much evidence of that.”

Pickup said the Nova Scotia Health Authority has since implemented a more rigorous process for internal meeting and employee social expenditures, while developing two new policies to be presented to its board for approval this fall.

He added that the authority has made some progress, having fixed control deficiencies reported in 2017 in procurement, payment processing, and payroll processing.

Meanwhile, Pickup’s report also highlighted once again the “troubling” state of the Nova Scotia teachers pension plan, which is 78.4 per cent funded and has a $1.4 billion deficit.

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Pickup warned there is no formal plan on how to deal with the deficit, and he urged the province and teachers to get together to find a solution.

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He was asked Tuesday why he is flagging the ongoing problems for a second year in a row.

“I would remind all Nova Scotians that this isn’t a teachers issue or problem, this is everybody’s problem. Teachers are on the hook for half of this, the province is on the hook for $700 million – i.e. everybody who is not a teacher.”

The report says the province has paid an extra $57 million into the teachers’ pension plan over the past five years due to its “poor financial position.”

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He also noted pensioners retired since Aug. 1, 2006, have not seen an increase in their pension cheques for a decade.

Premier Stephen McNeil said the state of the plan is a “major issue” and would be part of discussions around the next collective agreement for teachers.

“It is a grave concern,” McNeil said. “This has been an ongoing issue for the better part of a decade . . . so we need to have another go at this and find a solution to ensure we provide more stability.”

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In an email, Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney said the union would continue working with the government on finding solutions.

Wozney said that in 2014 teacher contributions increased by three per cent overall while the province also provided additional funds.

“Since then, the plan has experienced some modest improvement and we are hopeful this positive trend continues,” he said. “That being said, growth of the plan is tied to teacher salaries and the recent pay freeze limited available revenue.”