The Ontario agency responsible for assessing more than four million properties is in the spotlight once again, not only for out-of-date valuations that leave one in eight homeowners paying too much or too little in taxes, but for spending $1,700 on Nintendo Wii consoles, a set of Taylor Made golf clubs and iPod touch phones.
The items were bought as promotional gifts, officials at the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. explained to the provincial auditor. But Auditor-General Jim McCarter, who revealed the spending in his annual report released on Monday, said it remains a mystery why the items were needed in the first place with no documentation saying who received them.
MPAC joins a long list of government entities that have come under the auditor's scrutiny for their free-wheeling spending on lucrative contracts awarded to consultants and for wining and dining employees.
A dozen MPAC employees expensed a $955 dinner at Toronto's CN Tower to celebrate their department's year-end results, the report says. A group of 16 employees expensed a $746 Christmas lunch.
MPAC president Carl Isenburg stressed in an interview on Monday that the agency's free-spending days are over.
"Our policies have now changed," he said. "We no longer accept year-end dinners or those kinds of expenses."
Mr. Isenburg said MPAC tightened its policies in the fall of 2009, when Premier Dalton McGuinty warned that employees of the province's far-flung network of agencies, boards and commissions must play by the rules governing the use of taxpayers' money.
In addition to the "questionable" spending at MPAC, the auditor also gives homeowners plenty of reason to wonder whether their property tax bills are too high. One house assessed at $330,000 in January, 2008, sold for just $100,000 six months later, meaning the new owner would be paying too much in taxes. On the flip side, a house assessed at $588,000 in January, 2008, sold for $1.4-million five months later.
Overall, the selling price of one in eight of the 11,500 houses sampled across the province differed from the market-value assessment by more than 20 per cent because MPAC did not have up-to-date information.
The assessments are done on a four-year cycle. The most recent ones are pegged to housing values calculated last Jan. 1, 2008.
The assessments are highly political. In 2006, the McGuinty government froze property tax assessments for two years, guaranteeing that the controversy surrounding homeowners' skyrocketing tax bills at the time would not become an issue during the 2007 election campaign.
Dan Mathieson, chairman of the board of directors of MPAC and mayor of Stratford, pledged that the agency will do a better job of reviewing the sale price of a house when it differs significantly from its assessed value.
"Our job is to make sure that the assessed value of a home is accurate," he said in a statement.
MPAC is just the latest example of questionable spending at a government entity. The McGuinty government has also been under siege over spending scandals at eHealth Ontario, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. and, more recently, Niagara Parks Commission.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said on Monday that Mr. McGuinty's "legacy of waste, rot and scandal" continues.
New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath also criticized the lavish spending at MPAC. "It's as if nothing was learned from the eHealth scandal," she said.
This is the second time MPAC has come under scrutiny. In a 2006 report, Ontario Ombudsman André Marin documented serious problems at the agency. He said it had a "superiority complex" that led it to disdain taxpayers and produce thousands of incorrect property appraisals every year.
Hospital emergency departments
A shortage of beds not just in hospitals but throughout communities in Ontario is creating a bottleneck in emergency departments. A lack of community services, including home care for the elderly, is making it difficult for hospitals to free up beds for patients waiting to be admitted.
Emergency patients who needed to be admitted were waiting 10 hours on average for a bed, and some waited 26 hours or more. In some cases, the delay was because hospital rooms had not been cleaned.
About half of the patients who could have been discharged if home care had been available waited in hospital an average of six days for the services.
Family responsibility office
The agency that collects and distributes court-ordered support payments in Ontario is once again under fire for not doing its job properly. The auditor says the office is still struggling with problems raised in his 2003 report, and acts on a maximum of one-quarter of its cases each year.
About 20,000 people have been forced onto welfare because a former partner or spouse has failed to pay support. Eighty per cent of calls to the office's call centre never get through.
Ontario's 24 community colleges are crumbling and in dire need of $70-million in the next year to maintain their aging facilities. The backlog of needed maintenance and repairs for everything from lecture halls to boiler rooms and cafeterias is estimated at well over $500-million.
The auditor says the Ontario government was in too much of a hurry to get its $3.1-billion in infrastructure spending out the door as part of its effort to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Half the funds were given to projects that were clearly not "shovel-ready." Tight deadlines forced government officials to spend only a short time assessing proposed projects.
In one instance, applications for projects worth $600-million were assessed in just four hours.
The auditor questions whether the $50-million spent by the province on safe-school initiatives each year is actually having any impact on student behaviour. The Ministry of Education is not collecting the information needed to determine if the plan is actually helping reduce physical and psychological aggression in schools.
Surveys show that 29 per cent of Ontario students claim to have been victims of bullying and seven per cent claim to have been threatened or injured with a weapon.