Ng: No surplus funds to spend on Nunavut’s housing shortage
The Nunavut government will likely produce a one-time windfall budget surplus of $30-$40 million this year, most of which will go towards covering the government’s health care deficit.
RANKIN INLET — Nunavut Finance Minister Kelvin Ng told the Legislative Assembly this week that an estimated $20 million health care deficit will be the prime target of any surplus funds the government manages to save through unspent employee salary and benefit money created by the large number of unfilled positions in the Nunavut government’s civil service.
“We’re probably looking at $30-40 million as a preliminary number,” Ng told reporters Feb. 21, after being asked about the estimated size of the Nunavut government’s surplus.
Most of that windfall represents money that the Nunavut government would have budgeted for last year — but ended up not spending because of low hiring levels.
Ng said that, right now, only 75 per cent of Nunavut government jobs have been filled. That’s up from staffing levels of less than 50 per cent that the Nunavut government was stuck with last spring.
Spend surplus on housing?
During the session Ng and Health and Social Services Minister Ed Picco faced heavy questioning from regular MLAs concerned that the financial state of Nunavut’s health and social services boards would muscle out other concerns, such as Nunavut’s housing shortage.
The MLA’s referred repeatedly to a Feb. 11 Nunatsiaq News article in which Ng and Picco confirmed that the looming health board deficits would be taken care of with unspent money found within the health department, and other government departments.
Ng and Picco confirmed the story was indeed correct.
“Recognizing that we did have some room in this current year’s expenditures, we did allow the Department of Health to transfer over approximately $5 million this year from their unspent expenditures in addition to that to deal with the issue of the opening deficit of approximately $8.9 million that the three health boards had on April 1. From a government-wide perspective as well, we allowed that funding to be used to offset those opening deficits as well,” Ng told the house.
Iqaluit West MLA Hunter Tootoo asked if housing might also be addressed in the budget surplus, but was told by Ng that housing was an issue better left for upcoming budgets.
“There’s nothing that we could allocate now in this current year that would make a significant impact, given that… planning requirements on the matter of housing would have to take place for the current year 2000… ” Ng said.
He told the legislature that the health boards operate programs that are going over budget, and that the territorial government still has to pay for them because they are important.
High medical travel costs
Responding to a question from Arviat MLA Kevin O’Brien, Health Minister Ed Picco told the legislature that the cost of medical travel accounts for 25 per cent of the health boards’ budgets, and 20 per cent of the $8.9 million deficit that the boards opened with in April 1999.
“We do have a plan,” Picco told the legislature when asked by O’Brien if there was any plan to avoid a deficit in the future when a surplus might not be available.
Picco said his department had contracted Consulting and Audit Canada to review the current status of medical care in Nunavut with the goal of proposing a new policy that would be presented once the boards had been integrated with his department on April 1.
Consulting and Audit Canada is a federal government consultant’s clearing house that was used by the Office of the Interim Commissioner in its planning work for Nunavut prior to April 1, 1999.
Other large chunks of the health boards deficits were taken up by the cost of placing Nunavut residents in long-term care facilities, institutions or group homes outside of the territory, Picco said after the session.
Spending by health boards on staff retention and recruitment also accounted for some of the deficit, he said.
Picco said health departments across Canada are often over-budget because of unexpected expenses and under-funding. He said he has already spoken to the legislature and some of the standing committees about the problem.
Ng told the legislature that the Nunavut government’s Financial Management Board has already approved the transfer of surplus funds from within the health department to the health boards to cover their deficits.
The Financial Management Board is made up of all cabinet ministers, with the finance minister chairing the meeting.
Ng also said that in future years a surplus from a slower-than-expected government staff hiring process would probably not happen.