The Ontario government needs to tighten controls on COVID-19 pandemic spending in the wake of the auditor general’s annual report, said the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) on Wednesday. 

“Taxpayers expect governments to spend their money wisely,” said CTF Ontario director Jay Goldberg. “Handing nearly $1 billion to businesses not eligible for pandemic funds shows governments need to do more to make sure taxpayers’ money doesn’t go to the wrong people.”

Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s annual report revealed concerns about Ontario’s COVID-19 economic response and supports for businesses. 

“We found that the province did not use effective and efficient systems and procedures to make informed and co-ordinated decisions,” read the report. “Ontario did not have an overall strategy in its economic response to the pandemic and did not establish short- or long-term objectives for its economic support programs.” 

The report showed that the Ontario government focused on speed rather than on ensuring the information reported was authentic and applicants were eligible. The Ontario Small Business Support Program implemented key controls to identify and prevent payments to ineligible businesses months after it launched. 

The report also showed that Ontario wrote off more than $210 million paid to 14,500 ineligible recipients in the Ontario Small Business Support Program in August. These recipients were identified through third-party contractor reviews performed during the program. 

Various ministries are currently examining 212 recipients who could be ineligible. 

Financial support received through the Ontario Small Business Support Grant was not proportional to businesses’ revenue losses, the report found. According to findings, 51,000 recipients received $714 million more than they should have. 

The report also showed that strict criteria made the Ontario Small Business Support Program inaccessible to sectors hit hardest by the pandemic. Businesses that were required to close or restrict their services due to lockdown measures were eligible for supports, but other businesses that experienced significant revenue loss were ineligible 

Goldberg said the Ontario government needs to be more mindful about how it spends taxpayers’ money. 

“After bungling the pandemic aid rollout, the Ford government should ensure taxpayers’ money is recovered,” said Goldberg. “Taxpayer dollars should not be going to businesses that fail to meet eligible requirements.”

The CTF called on the Ontario government to rein in spending after Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy tabled the fall economic update in November. 

“The government claims it wants to balance the books without spending cuts or tax increases, but the economic update fails to lay out a plan for how to get there,” said Goldberg. “The government can and should find savings to balance the budget in the near term.”

Ontario’s fall economic update projected a $21.5 billion deficit for the current fiscal year.  

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