The Ontario government is looking at selling the agency responsible for assessing property values for homeowners to the private sector, spurred in part by its hiring of the same high-end caterer that has served the Queen, Oprah Winfrey and every Canadian prime minister since Pierre Trudeau.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan reacted with anger to revelations that the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation closed up shop on Tuesday so that most of its employees could travel to Toronto to attend a lavish team-building retreat.
"We're going to have a long hard look at the future of MPAC," Mr. Duncan told reporters on Tuesday.
"Let's just say it's been one of those thorns under my saddle for some time on a range of issues."
MPAC is among a long list of government entities that have come under the provincial auditor's scrutiny for their free-wheeling spending.
In his 2010 annual report, Auditor-General Jim McCarter criticized MPAC for spending $746 on a Christmas lunch for 16 employees and $1,700 on Nintendo Wii gaming consoles, a set of Taylor Made golf clubs and iPod Touch music players.
But until now there had been no mention of privatizing MPAC, which is responsible for assessing just under five million properties in the province.
It was criticisms over his own stewardship of MPAC by opposition members that prompted Mr. Duncan to suggest the agency should follow the same path as the province's electronic land-registry system.
The government struck a deal in 2010 to extend the licence on Teranet Inc., the land registry, for another 50 years.
Teranet's owner, an arm of the OMERS pension fund manager, paid $1-billion to the province.
"Teranet is running much better the way it is structured," Mr. Duncan said.
MPAC held the retreat at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, not to wine and dine employees but to unveil a new strategic plan aimed at cutting operating costs, agency chairman Dan Mathieson told The Globe and Mail.
Nevertheless, it was the choice of the caterer that caused the most controversy.
In addition to serving political leaders and celebrities, à la Carte Kitchen Inc. is the preferred caterer to Roy Thomson Hall, where it is doing the closing-night party on Saturday for the Toronto International Film Festival.
For MPAC employees, à la Carte served a variety of sandwiches – grilled vegetables with olive tapenade, roast strip loin with caramelized onions and horseradish beetroot cream, grilled chicken with provolone cheese and chipotle aioli.
Also on the menu was Tuscany pasta salad with sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and black olives.
Brian King, co-owner of à la Carte, would not say how much the lunch for 1,300 people cost.
Mr. Mathieson, who is also the mayor of Stratford, Ont., said the entire retreat cost $170,000, or about $130 for each employee.
This includes the lunch, hotel rooms in Vaughan, north of Toronto, for 100 employees at $149 each, and airfare to fly in 30 employees from Northern Ontario.
But Mr. Mathieson said this cost is more than offset by the savings of $20-million MPAC is expected to generate over four years.
The agency plans to cut annual operating costs of $200-million by leasing less office space.
More property assessors are expected to start working from home, which will also cut travel time and related expenses, Mr. Mathieson said.
He accused the provincial Progressive Conservatives of blowing things out of proportion but stopped short of criticizing Mr. Duncan, saying he appreciates his "anger and frustration."
In Question Period on Wednesday, Tory finance critic Peter Shurman called the retreat the "latest Liberal spending scandal."
Mr. Duncan said he was appalled.
"I thought it was kind of a boneheaded thing to do," he said.