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Community Services and Seniors Minister Valerie Docherty
Community Services Minister Valerie Docherty has been forced to explain why she upgraded her room at a posh Toronto hotel last June, while this week presenting a budget with a cut to social programs of almost $2 million.
In the legislature Friday, the Opposition Tories tabled a detailed hotel bill showing Docherty upgraded her room during a stay at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto last June.
The upgrade cost $16.
Opposition MLA James Aylward says he called the hotel and was told the upgrade was for room on a higher floor with a better view.
“What do you say to all of your clients in social programs who paid for your room upgrade at the top luxury hotel in Toronto to one with a better view?” Aylward asked Docherty.
She denied this was the reason for the room change, explaining the room she had booked wasn’t ready when she arrived and she needed to change for an important meeting to lobby for affordable housing for seniors.
The upgraded room was available right away and cost only $16 more, so she agreed.
“I believe that, for the price of the upgrade in order for me to be ready for my meeting on time, that it was definitely worthwhile, the investment,” Docherty said.
But Aylward pointed to her department’s financial projections for this year, included in the provincial budget tabled earlier this week.
It shows her department did not spend the full amount it had budgeted last year on social assistance and other support programs, leaving over $2.3 million unspent in 2013.
This year, her department has reduced its budget for social support programs by close to $2 million from what was budgeted last year.
Aylward says his office hears constantly from Islanders who are struggling financially. They could have used help from the $2.3 million that Docherty chose not to spend last year.
“Islanders are hurting, there’s no secret about that, we’re hearing terrible stories everyday and for this minister to leave $2.3 million on the table from programs when Islanders are looking for help, Islanders are looking to feed their families, Islanders are looking to provide heat in their oil tanks – it’s inexcusable.”
Docherty said the fact she saved $2.3 million on her budget last year is positive news, as it means fewer Islanders needed social assistance.
She stressed no one who comes looking for help from the province is turned away.
“The fact that there is a reduction actually is a good thing… It means that Islanders are working. It means they don’t have to come to our department for supports,” she said.
“The reduction has nothing to do with any over-expenditures anywhere else. It’s the fact that we are working hard on behalf of Islanders to ensure that they are impacted as little as possible.”
Docherty has acknowledged in the past, however, that rates for food and rent allowance in P.E.I. are quite low.
But on Friday she explained she cannot raise simply those rates if there is extra money in the budget, as there was last year.
“I can’t just suddenly give everybody a bonus cheque and then back to where they were, I have to be very mindful of how that money is being used.”
As for her hotel room upgrade, she insists she did not ask for it but did take it after she realized how little it would cost.
“We’re not talking significant dollars,” Docherty said.
Aylward believes she should have used her own money to pay for it rather than expensing it to taxpayers – even if it was a nominal amount.
“She’s so out of touch… to Islanders who are in need, $16 is a lot of money.”