If Premier Dennis Fentie is incapable of being honest about the $23-million deficit his government is set to post, how are we supposed to trust anything else he says?
That’s the question Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell is asking aloud, in an effort to tarnish Fentie’s credibility by connecting the dots between scandals past, present and future.
While Fentie hasn’t outright lied about the territory’s finances, he has, without question, been evasive and misleading.
Asked to confirm the impending deficit, he confuses deficits with debt, says there’s lots of money in the bank and points to big numbers that include outstanding liabilities and assets that cannot be easily sold, such as schools and the legislative assembly.
Then, Fentie wraps up by claiming that opposition MLAs don’t know how to read a budget sheet.
“The premier has broken a promise that he would not table a deficit budget and now he’s trying to deny it,” Mitchell said Tuesday.
Nor is the projected surplus of $2.9 million for 2010-11 believable, said Mitchell.
There’s no money set aside for wage increases that will kick-in when teachers and public servants strike new collective agreements.
Projected costs for the Department of Health and Social Services are budgeted to shrink this year, to $230 million from $248 million. (Finance officials say the budget doesn’t account for Ottawa’s one-off transfers of cash for health costs, and that they do, in fact, anticipate to spend more this year.)
And there’s no sign in the budget of at least one project the government has vowed to complete: repairs to the Thomson Centre, which was built as a home for the elderly but has largely sat empty in recent years because of mould infestations and other problems meeting the building code.
“The government has already announced this $1.5-million project. It just didn’t get around to actually putting the money in the budget. This amount would cut the surplus in half,” Mitchell said on Monday.
As Mitchell tells it, Fentie’s latest evasions are part of a pattern set by last year’s ATCO scandal, when the premier denied considering privatizing Yukon’s energy utility, then documents surfaced that contradicted him.
“It’s all about trust and that trust has been broken beyond repair,” he said.
And Fentie doesn’t have a mandate to borrow $167 million to expand the Mayo hydro-electric project and build hospitals in Watson Lake and Dawson City, said Mitchell. “He didn’t tell people, ‘Vote for me and I’ll spend all the money and, on top of that, I’ll max out the credit card.’”
Fentie counters that if the opposition has a better plan than building these facilities, he’d like to hear it.
“Why would they not invest in hospitals?” he asked. “Why would (Mitchell) encumber Yukon ratepayers, when it comes to their electrical bills, with $20 million of further charges for diesel use for the same electricity we can provide much cheaper?”
In interviews, both Mitchell and NDP Leader Elizabeth Hanson replied it’s unreasonable for Fentie to expect them to suddenly clean up a mess of his own making.
“We wouldn’t have been at this point in the first place,” said Mitchell.
If the territory had not invested $36.5 million in asset-backed commercial paper, it would now have half of the territory’s commitment required for the Mayo-B hydro-electric project, said Mitchell.
And if the territory had developed better green energy plans, it wouldn’t be in such a rush to add another five megawatts to the power grid, said Hanson.
“For seven years, Yukon Energy has basically vacated the field … of green energy,” she said. Hanson calls Mayo B the “most expensive per-megawatt energy project in Canada, probably North America.”
Both agree that Dawson City and Watson Lake need replacements for their aging medical facilities. But they question whether acute-care hospitals are the best fit.
The government has never made public any study that looked at “the real needs of the people of Watson Lake,” said Mitchell.
A recent access-to-information request filed by the Yukon News found as much. The released documents included no evidence that both communities required acute-care facilities.
And Hanson notes the Dawson City hospital was announced before a health review committee finished its work, leaving the Yukon Medical Association to wonder why this was so.
One alternative to a new hospital could be launching a pilot program that would see nurse practitioners offering greater home-care services to the elderly, said Hanson.
“We can’t retain the number of staff there now. This is a cost escalator model that they’ve chosen. It ignores the practical solutions provided by Yukoners.”
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