Improper expenses, teacher sick days probed in auditor general's report
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, December 6, 2017 11:56AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, December 6, 2017 1:57PM EST
Ontario electricity ratepayers are paying millions for power generators' ineligible expenses -- including scuba gear and raccoon traps -- and are footing the bill for large industrial companies' savings, the province's auditor general reported Wednesday.
Auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said in her annual report that the Independent Electricity System Operator hasn't implemented repeated recommendations from the Ontario Energy Board, including one that could save ratepayers $30 million a year.
Lysyk also wrote that teachers and other school board employees are taking more sick days -- almost 12 days each per year up from nine days five years ago -- that more families are waiting for social housing than are actually living in social housing, and that Ontario is paying tens of millions to send cancer patients to the U.S. for stem cell treatments because the capacity doesn't exist in the province.
In the energy file, a frequent target of Lysyk's, her report looked at a program that pays power generators for fuel, maintenance and operating costs when the IESO puts them on standby to supply energy.
Nine generators claimed up to $260 million in ineligible costs between 2006 and 2015, Lysyk said, and about two-thirds of that has been paid back. One natural gas plant in Brampton, Ont., "gamed" the system for about $100 million, the OEB has reported.
Generators claimed thousands of dollars a year for staff car washes, carpet cleaning, road repairs, landscaping, scuba gear and raccoon traps, "which have nothing to do with running power equipment on standby," Lysyk wrote. One generator claimed about $175,000 for coveralls and parkas over two years, she said.
"The program was such that bills could be submitted but without any support for the bills and the bills were being paid, and it wasn't until more requests were made for detailed information that (the IESO) became aware that there were costs behind that bill that probably shouldn't be reimbursed," Lysyk said.
The program was originally started in 2003, when Ontario's grid had supply issues, though now the province has surplus power.
The OEB found in 2014 that the standby program was relied on less than one per cent of the time to meet domestic demand, and has recommended repeatedly that it be scaled back to stop reimbursing generators for certain operating and maintenance costs. Doing so would save ratepayers $30 million a year, the OEB says.
Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault said the program and other similar ones play an important role in the electricity system.
"These are programs that ensure that when Ontario families and businesses need electricity, it's there for them," he said in a statement. "If these programs were eliminated, reliability would be put at risk."
The IESO is working on a redesign of the electricity market, but Lysyk noted that some members of a working group advising the system operator on that work for companies that have claimed ineligible costs. One member resigned his post on Friday.
Lysyk also found that as electricity charges for large industrial ratepayers decrease under a program that gives them savings when they reduce consumption during peak demand, that results in higher costs for residential and small business ratepayers.
The Industrial Conservation Initiative reduced charges for the large ratepayers by $245 million in the first 10 months of its operation in 2011, and that same amount was directly added to residential and small business electricity bills, Lysyk wrote.
Since then, electricity charges for residents and small businesses have nearly doubled, while they have decreased for large industrial ratepayers, the auditor found.
Those charges come in the form of the global adjustment, a charge consumers pay for above-market rates guaranteed to power producers in long-term contracts. In 2016, the global adjustment accounted for 85 per cent of residential consumers' electricity charges, Lysyk said.
Thibeault said the industrial program has successfully reduced peak demand -- last year by about 1,300 megawatts, about six per cent of the province's peak demand.
"That means that this program helped avoid the need to build costly new generation in the longer term, which is a benefit to all ratepayers across the province, both residential and commercial," he said in a statement.
Lysyk also announced through her report that her office would be auditing the IESO's books. That comes amid one of two accounting disputes the auditor has been engaged in with the Liberal government.
She recently accused the government of purposely obscuring the true financial impact of its 25 per cent cut to hydro bills by keeping billions in debt used to finance that plan off the province's books. Lysyk said she will audit the IESO because of its role in the hydro plan's complex accounting scheme.
Lysyk has previously clashed with the government over how public pension plan surpluses are accounted for, suggesting that the government's method makes its bottom line look better and hides a deficit. The government disputes that and tapped an independent panel to look at the issue. It sided with the government.
The auditor has also frequently complained of the government's changes to advertising rules, which she says forces her office to rubber stamp government ads it feels are partisan.
In the 2016-17 fiscal year, the government spent a record $58 million on advertising -- 30 per cent of which Lysyk would not have approved under the old rules, she said.
Some of that advertising, such as promoting the 2017 budget and ads about the creation of daycare spaces, could be seen as political given their timing just ahead of the 2018 election, Lysyk said.
Treasury Board President Liz Sandals said there was a $6 million increase in the government advertising budget, which is due to increased costs for digital ads, translation and meeting accessibility standards.