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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Newfoundland auditor flags pricey sick leave, golf carts in government hangar

MOUNT PEARL, N.L. - Health care overspending, millions of dollars in uncollected fines and use of a government hangar for personal storage are all being flagged by Newfoundland and Labrador's auditor general.

Terry Paddon's report Thursday to the legislature says Eastern Health, the province's largest health authority, spent just over $30 million on sick leave last year. That's 20 per cent more than the provincial government average which is already higher than the private sector.

Paddon said sick leave wasn't properly documented as the authority racked up $20.1 million in regular and overtime wages to replace absent staff.

He said unionized workers called back between shifts get at least three hours of overtime, required or not, costing $1.7 million in hours not actually clocked.

Paddon also raised alarms about extra cash for "additional workload benefits" paid due to staff vacancies.

One doctor received nearly $1.5 million in added payments over 11 years because of a vacant position that Eastern Health never posted and does not intend to fill, said the report.

The extra money was despite the fact that the authority itself said the doctor had no extra duties compared to others in the same specialty, Paddon told a news conference.

He also said 132 Eastern Health staff are on salary as they collect government pensions — a double hit for taxpayers.

In its response, Eastern Health said it's improving how it tracks overtime and sick leave, which tends to be higher for staff working with ill patients. Retaining qualified staff is a long-standing challenge in the province.

Kevin Lacey, Atlantic director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said it's "egregious" that Eastern Health had an accumulated operating deficit of $76.4 million by last March. The shortfall is despite an extra $75 million the province gave the authority on top of its $1.2 billion in operating grants — a budget up 22 per cent in the last five years.

Paddon also raised concerns about audits for offshore oil royalties worth $1.8 billion last year. Such reviews generally must be done within seven years of payment but are often started late, he said.

"We see there's a fairly significant risk then that you're rushed through the process just to ensure that you meet the timelines." Assuring that royalties are fully paid is crucial in a province that relies on the oil sector for about one third of government revenues, Paddon said.

Natural Resources said in its response that it has hired more audit staff and has a new schedule to shorten reporting times.

Paddon also warned that about 350 bridges aged 40 years or more will soon need around $800 million in repairs.

He said the province rates 154 of those to be in poor condition yet there's no clear plan to prioritize that work.

The government's response said it's considering a new project management system that would include bridges.

Uncollected provincial traffic, court and other fines were worth $33.1 million as of last March, Paddon said.

Just six collections officers — two were lost in recent government budget cuts — are only chasing balances of at least $400, he added.

He recommends the province expand collection efforts by not just refusing driver's licence and vehicle registration permits to those who owe, but also hunting licences, health cards and other certificates.

And there was the surprise auditors got at a hangar in Gander meant for government aircraft.

Workers were using it as storage for personal items such as RVs, golf carts and vehicles, Paddon said.

He called it "a fairly significant risk when you're putting that stuff in the same building that you've got a $30-million or $40-million water bomber."

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