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Advocates Question 'Luxury' Spending by BC Children's Ministry

Watchdog asks gov't to review expenses for five-star hotels, spa resorts and fine chocolates.

By David P. Ball 22 Jul 2015 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous reporting published on The Tyee here.

British Columbia's children's watchdog wants to know why Ministry of Children and Family Development staff expensed what appear to be luxury services among their more than $5.8 million in credit card transactions over the past year.

A list of nearly 14,000 credit card charges made by the ministry in the 2014-2015 fiscal year included a number of purchases at golf and country clubs, spa resorts and five-star hotels, along with bills for helicopter rides, leather and fur stores and gourmet chocolates. The Tyee obtained the list from DataBC's online public registry.

The Tyee brought the spending to the attention of the Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who confirmed she wants the ministry and B.C.'s auditor general to look into "expenses that look like luxury items."

According to the registry, in the 2014-2015 fiscal year nearly $2 million was spent on air travel, including nearly $140,000 on Helijet trips. Staff also billed for a visit to Canadian Mountain Holidays' K2 Rotor Lodge Heli-Skiing clubhouse.

There were charges for services at the luxuriant Fairmont Empress and Chateau Victoria hotels, and Vancouver's Four Seasons Hotel, one of only four Forbes five-star hotels in Canada.

The ministry spent thousands at golf courses: $5,060 at Coquitlam's Westwood Plateau Golf and Country Club, $3,400 at Victoria's Highland Pacific Golf Course, $3,132 at the Langley Golf & Banquet Centre, and $2,500 at the Westin Bear Mountain Golf Resort & Spa. High-end restaurant expenses included $1,176 spent at Earls and $343 at Seasons in the Park.

Also billed was nearly $3,700 at fur and leather shops, $2,665 on chocolates from gourmet confectioners, including Chocolaterie Bernard Callebaut and Purdys, $580 at Victoria's Academy of Excellence Hair Design & Aesthetics, $200 at two different Victoria hot yoga studios, more than $25,000 at Amazon, and what appears to be 12 months of Netflix.

"Those types of expenses can sometimes be a concern, so it's always a good idea to review them," Turpel-Lafond said, adding that it's especially important to evaluate spending "when some programs have been told to cut back in terms of what they can do to support children and families."

Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux was unavailable for an interview by publication time, but a ministry spokeswoman said that many of the hotel and resort expenses were for staff meetings or "appreciation" events, and thank-you gifts for foster families.

"We cannot thank these extraordinary people enough for providing children in need with a nurturing and caring home," Kirsten Lauvaas wrote in an emailed statement. Other items, such as the chocolates and spas, fell under a discretionary $100-per-staffer the ministry allows for employee "recognition and retirement gifts" or as a "small token of appreciation" for workers putting in extra hours, she said.

[Editor's note: After this story was published, Minister Stephanie Cadieux sent a letter to the editor that said the credit card transactions can be "easily explained and supported." Read it in full here.]

The ministry's annual budget is $1.4 billion, of which 90 per cent "is used to support clients and communities," according to a government website. Compared to other B.C. departments, the ministry used credit cards less than average as a proportion of its total budget. However, The Tyee did not compare its apparent "luxury" expenses with those of other ministries; nonetheless only one other department billed for Netflix, another for the same heliskiing lodge, and a number frequently travelled by Helijet.

Turpel-Lafond agreed that employee recognition is important but that in a time of fiscal restraint, with families on wait lists for services, "everything really needs to be directed to that wherever possible."

Expenses 'hard to swallow'

Former social worker Ernie Crey, founder of the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, said that spending on events, outings and gifts for foster families and foster kids is on the face of it a good thing. "That's where much of the spending should be."

But he has questions about the litany of ministry staff perks, which he said "look very bad."

"They're hard to swallow when you consider cuts to spending such as were experienced by my own community," Crey said.

Crey's reserve, Cheam First Nation, has higher-than-average numbers of children in care. One program hit by ministry cuts was Roots and Ties, which held supervised monthly dinners that brought children in care to the community with their foster parents, biological families and social workers.

By all measures the program was "working really well," said its co-founder June Quipp, now a band councillor. The Ministry of Children and Family Development bumped its funding from $20,000 a year to $28,000 in 2012, but the money ended in 2013.


"All of a sudden we heard word they weren't going to support us anymore," she recalled. "They just said there was no more funding available from Victoria... A lot of the social workers were especially upset, because they were really participating in the program; it was one of the answers to their obligation to reconnect the families."

Cheaper options?

Dermod Travis, executive director of the non-partisan watchdog IntegrityBC, said that although some of the higher-end credit card expenses may be simply costs of "normal operations" -- necessary staff travel, for instance, or employee appreciation -- "there are far too many such charges at the Ministry of Children and Family Development to simply wave them all off."

He added there are cheaper options for event venues than spa resorts and golf courses. "If you're dealing with the most vulnerable in society, eating at Seasons in the Park and staying at the Four Seasons [isn't] understandable."

The ministry spokeswoman wrote that all credit card transactions are reviewed by staff, and any "suspicious transactions" were followed up on. "If inappropriate transactions were identified, action was taken and the funds returned to the ministry," she said. Her emailed statement did not say which, if any, expenses were deemed suspicious.

Turpel-Lafond said that cuts to programs like Roots and Ties and others make it tough for social workers and agencies to better support families and children. She's asking the ministry to "look at those expenses again to see whether there is anything to learn for future purchases."

From briefings with top ministry staff, Turpel-Lafond said she understood there were travel restrictions and efforts to reduce "discretionary" expenses in recent years.

 "The ministry has been pretty good at cutting their budget back," she said, "but that ironically means a lot of people are not getting the type of service they need."  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

BREAKING DOWN THE SPENDING

In an analysis of the ministry's expenses, The Tyee tallied up approximately $100,000 in what appear to be luxury charges. We classified a luxury charge as spending on:

-- Restaurants and hotels that are clearly "high-end"
-- Golf clubs, spas, resorts and casinos
-- Goods from gift, flower, chocolate, leather and fur shops, and beauty salons
-- Adult recreation (i.e. heliskiing resort, an art gallery, botanical gardens)
-- Netflix and iTunes purchases

The Tyee excluded from the total:

-- All travel, by air, taxi, VIA Rail, ferry, helicopter, etc.
-- Most items that could be considered amusement or activities for children (i.e. Science World, Vancouver Aquarium)
-- Expenses at bookstores (i.e. Amazon, Coles, Chapters, Indigo)

While the records do not clarify how the ministry used the higher-end resorts and hotels, a spokeswoman said that many of those expenses were for staff meetings or "appreciation" events, as well as thank-you gifts for foster families.

-- David P. Ball

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