Highways officials grilled by accounts committee following audit

On Thursday, Highways and Public Works officials testified the department needs more money, consultants and time to fix problems exposed in a…

On Thursday, Highways and Public Works officials testified the department needs more money, consultants and time to fix problems exposed in a scathing audit.

One week ago, auditor general Sheila Fraser released a damning report detailing a litany of problems in the department.

Those problems could be eroding the safety of the territory’s roads, bridges and buildings and costing the government money, said Fraser.

Thursday, five department officials fielded questions from the non-partisan public accounts committee, which is charged with overseeing how government money is spent.

“There have been many things happening in this department to address the findings of the audit report,” testified acting deputy minister Janet Mann.

Mann was appointed after former deputy minister John Stecyk was fired in early January.

She pointed to a proposed business redesign project for the department, a computer system to track property information and the completion of a master space plan as some of the solutions.

All are projected to arrive over the next several years.

But politicians Arthur Mitchell, Marian Horne, Steve Nordick, John Edzerza, Don Inverarity, Patrick Rouble and Elaine Taylor sought more from the department heads.

The audit raised concerns about the lack of a master plan for office space, which prompted Taylor, the Tourism minister, to challenge departmental officials.

“Why has the department chosen to proceed without a strategy,” she asked.

“I guess the short answer is that I’m not sure why,” testified Steven Gasser, assistant deputy minister of property management.

The plan being created by a local and national consultant team is due in September 2007, but will probably be late, he testified.

And it will also require more money, he added.

“Does the department believe that the absence of a strategy has contributed to additional costs over the years?” continued Taylor.

“Yes I do,” said Gasser.

The audit also noted most of the leases are sole-sourced.

More than 30 office leases are up for renewal in the next year.

But the “vacuum of a strategy” is leading Highways to stay put and wait for a plan despite the urgency of the problem, said Gasser.

Fraser’s audit uncovered a lack of oversight on the condition of the Yukon’s roads, bridges and buildings.

“Do you feel the highways and bridges in the Yukon are safe to travel on?” asked Inverarity, Liberal MLA for Porter Creek South.

“Yes I do,” said Robin Walsh, Highways’ director of transportation engineering.

Fraser’s audit found the Yukon average road score — out of a perfect score of 100 — was a 56.3, well below the 63average the department considers acceptable.

But Walsh told the committee to view the number systems in context: most of the roads below the limit are secondary roads, and even at lower scores, the roads and bridges remain safe for the public, he said.

There is an upward trend to the pavement and bridge scores, and that to continue that trend will likely cost about $8 million per year, he said.

Cost estimates for projects are often far off the final costs and go beyond their proposed completion dates, said Fraser’s audit.

Are they systemic problems, asked Klondike MLA Steve Nordick, of the Yukon Party.

“These problems are not unique to the Yukon,” testified Walsh, pointing out massive increases in the price of construction material and oil since 2003.

Prices have been increasing as much as 40 per cent in some areas in six-week periods, rendering cost estimates highly inaccurate, said Robert Magnuson, Walsh’s second in command.

Nordick also pressed Walsh and Magnuson on one of the audit’s most startling findings — that work on roads and bridges has been started without contracts being signed.

That could put the department and government at legal risk, said Fraser’s audit.

 “We would like for no project to start until the contractual documents are signed,” testified Magnuson. “But we believe we had mitigated the risk in a reasonable fashion the few times that did not happen, and we will continue with those practices in the future.”

The audit found the property management branch at Highways’ has no inventory of the space it oversees, and doesn’t conduct regular safety inspections.

Southern Lakes MLA Patrick Rouble pressed officials on why rules specifying that inspections must be carried out were ignored.

“Fundamentally, there are not enough resources to be able to inspect all the buildings on a regular basis,” testified Gasser.

And Rouble pushed Gasser on the proposed computer.

“Could you let me know a little more about it, to hopefully reduce my level of cynicism towards some of these $1-million magic bullets?”

With more than $1 billion in buildings overseen by the department, the computerized route appears the most logical to store and analyze data, replied Gasser.

But, he conceded, the department bought a computer system 10 years ago and it was never integrated.

Despite Fraser’s report detailing waste at Highways under the Yukon Party government’s watch, Premier Dennis Fentie is happy with its findings.

“We are, frankly, quite pleased with the outcomes here, because the auditor general has re-affirmed many things we already knew and challenges we must face,” said Fentie on Friday from Vancouver.

When the Yukon Party came to power in 2002 it found problems in the bureaucracy and his government has been trying to address them, he said.

The fixes introduced include inviting the auditor general to scrutinize agencies and getting re-established the stillborn public accounts committee back into action, he said.

The audit has already forced a shakeup at Highways — including Stecyk’s firing.

“It’s pretty simple — we have the option to terminate without cause, and that’s exactly what transpired,” said Fentie of the firing.

The former DM Stecyk is “not at the hearings because he was no longer an employee of the government,” he said.

Mann filled in for Stecyk on Thursday, but she only answered a handful of questions and deferred to her officials.

The public accounts committee will follow up with Highways and may hold another hearing, said Mitchell, who chaired the hearing.

The committee will also prepare a report for the legislature.