© Guardian photo
Community Services and Seniors Minister Valerie Docherty
The P.E.I. government left $2.3 million unspent in social assistance and other support payments last year and cut its budget this year for social programs by close to $2 million.
This has put Community Services Minister Valerie Docherty on the hot seat over the last several sitting days in the legislature, forced to explain why she did not use those millions to help vulnerable Islanders on disability support and social assistance.
On Tuesday, Independent MLA Olive Crane asked why some of this money was not distributed to help low-income Islanders to help them heat their homes.
“The Salvation Army ran out of emergency home heating fuel in January. In fact, it was the harshest winter on record going back 40 years,” Crane said.
She pointed out Docherty’s department would have received a third-quarter forecast informing them they would be under budget and thus have more dollars to work with.
“I’m really disappointed that $2 million was still on the table,” Crane said.
“(Docherty) would have known about the $2 million in January, and I find that outrageous because there was so much need this year, and that money could have been redirected and not gone back to general revenue.”
Crane also got a dig in at her former Opposition colleagues, saying she has heard from many Islanders on this issue who ‘quite frankly don’t care’ about a $16 room upgrade – referencing the Opposition’s focus of question period last week on Docherty’s hotel room upgrade last summer.
But last week Opposition MLA James Aylward did highlight and raise concern about the unspent money in Docherty’s department and upcoming cut this year.
On Wednesday, Opposition Leader Steven Myers continued to push for answers on how $2.3 million was left unspent when so many vulnerable Islanders could have used extra help.
“We have the highest taxes in all of Canada. Food banks are at an all-time high. Islanders are buying furnace oil in jerry cans at the gas station. Social assistance rates have barely budged under this government,” Myers said.
“Do you honestly feel that the needs of Islanders are being met or are you really that far out of touch?”
Docherty acknowledged assistance rates are low, but offered a number of reasons for the unspent $2.3 million.
On Friday and Tuesday, she said a decrease in social assistance clients was the major reason, which she described as positive news as it means fewer Islanders needed government help.
On Wednesday, she also tried to explain that the fourth quarter forecast has not yet been completed and that her department may have indeed already spent that money.
“I know it’s tough to live on social assistance. But what the member from Georgetown (Myers) needs to understand, and what I hope the public understands is, we would not turn away anyone who comes to us who is qualified and meets our criteria,” Docherty said.
She also pointed fingers at the previous Tory administration, which she says did not make the increases her Liberal government has since taking office in 2007.
She further noted that a new five-year food cost program will be rolled out next year. This will tie future food rates to CPI.
“That is going to make a difference in the lives of those who need to use our program,” Docherty said.
“Our shelter rates were increased in November. Our food rates for singles were increased this past January. We are working to address the need and we will continue to address the need.”