The latest in the long line of Ministers of Municipal Affairs is perfectly positioned politically to connect with this conservative constituency. But it’s going to take more than announcements to truly connect. If there is to be a redeemer for this infamous ministerial position, it might just be Danielle Larivee.
Larivee, recently minted Minister of Municipal Affairs, becomes the sixth Minister of Municipal Affairs since the 2013 Floods, and the latest to inherit the DRP Disaster. That is a new boss every 4.5 months, or 19 weeks. Marginally longer than the average probationary period for a job at Tim Horton's.
Newly appointed Minister of Municipal Affairs Danielle Larivee, who made an announcement in High River this morning about fixing the many issues still unresolved after the 2013 Floods, stands to the right of Premier Rachel Notley. On Notley's left is the most recent victim of the infamous ministerial position, Deron Bilous.
Following the provincial election in the spring we were expecting the NDP to appoint a saviour for the flood victims who would oversee DRP’s repairs and the completion of mitigation projects. Apparently the title Minister of Municipal Affairs is filled with bad joo joo, and Deron Bilous was shifted out of the job, just like his four predecessors.
It’s this premonition I am most worried about. Thankfully Minister Larivee is actively combatting those bad omens.
Today she announced $30 million in funding for the various mitigation projects on the Highwood River, the most significant of which is the southwest berm, a project High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass has deemed of the utmost importance. In addition, she has also committed to studying upstream and downstream mitigation to prevent further disasters. The Deltares reports have been used to reaffirm that diversion is not the best option, and represents a good decision and initiative started by the previous PC Government.
Minister Larivee has also stated a number of fixes to the DRP program. One of those fixes was that every file that was paid a little too much (likely from the 90% advance promised by Jim Prentice) will be able to keep that money if it was under $5000. For those who were given over $5000 too much, other arrangements need to be made. Larivee also said she was looking for complete closure of all DRP files by June 20, 2016. She indicated that DRP will take “a proactive approach to establishing contact with” the people whose files have remained inactive, likely because the applicant isn’t calling the province back. There are plenty of reasons why they wouldn’t call the province back, all of them legitimate, so it is great to hear that the government will seek them out rather than waiting for contact themselves. This should also allay fears that DRP will close files prematurely, and show care, consideration and compassion for the remaining applicants.
Much of this is good news. It means her hands are on the files, and she is actively seeking completion in this area of her ministry. I feel the need to apply a bit of pressure, as she is after all the sixth person tasked with this. To be clear, after having talked with Minister Larivee briefly, she is very aware that nobody wants yet another person in charge, and she wants to be the one to finish the job. That in and of itself is a huge plus, and if she gets it done, she could be considered the redeemer of that infamous ministerial position's bad joo joo.
The pressure has to be on three issues.
Time will tell how serious Minister Larivee is about getting this job done. The metric to be watching for is how hands-on she remains. Her predecessor didn’t. Maybe Larivee can rebuild some bridges, both literally and figuratively, and while she’s at it, make connections between the NDP Government and people out here in conservative country.
We want to trust our government. We need a reason to. Minister Larivee is perfectly positioned to give us that reason. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs is in big need of redeeming. So I’m watching.
And I’m hoping.
Wildrose MLA Wayne Anderson, the DRP Advocacy Committee, and Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark have all been upset about the supposed progress the DRP has been making.
I don’t believe they’ve been upset enough. I am so disappointed in this government operation that I am now calling for the resignation of the Director of the AEMA Shane Schreiber, and am joining the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association in calling for an independent review of the Disaster Recovery Program.
Minister of Municipal Affairs has shown how out-of-touch he is with the program in his latest statement to the press. It is obvious he is being fed manipulated information from the AEMA Director, and has no clue what actual progress on the DRP files actually looks like.
Allow me to review how I came to this conclusion.
I have kept a log of the various updates to DRP statuses, particularly for High River. Here are some strange anomalies I have found:
In early June, Mr. Anderson reported that the promise former Premier Jim Prentice made to close all DRP files by that time only referred to residential files. Even so, the number of open residential files have steadily increased since that promise was made, and even well into the NDP era.
Between mid-April and early-June, one High River Small Business file was lost. It was recovered between early-June and late-July along with another Small Business file and new residential High River files. This can be the only explanation for the discrepancy in the statistical reports, as the deadline to submit an application was way back in November of 2013.
That wasn’t the only time that happened. In fact, between mid-August and early-September, 4 more residential DRP files (including tenants) seem to have been found. This makes the total “found” files since Prentice’s promise to close all files by the summer add up to 11. Where have these files been since the deadline 22 months ago?
These are just the examples of mismanagement. Now I get to the anomalies that show misinformation.
Up to mid-April, an application may have been considered fully-funded, and therefore in progress, but it was not considered “open”. Yet every month following, fully-funded files were considered “open”. I have to wonder if this was done so that the DRP office could report, during an election, that only 6% of High River files remained open, even though a month after the election that number would suddenly jump to 16% after the NDP took office.
Stranger still is Minister Bilous’s explanation of what “fully-funded” actually means. He suggests that designation means a claimant has received all the money they are going to get. To be clear, I don’t believe this is his own personal definition, but rather a definition that has been handed to him. One has to wonder what the “paid” designation means, if not that the claimant has received all the money they are going to get.
In mid-August, across Alberta there were 1327 files still open, yet at the beginning of September suddenly 59 more files were categorized as “open”. 4 of those files had to have just been “found”, but where did the others come from? There have been 16 files that have been magically un-”withdrawn” over the summer, maybe they finally found their way into the “open” column? Even so, some files that were once “closed” suddenly were not anymore.
950 of those open files were fully-funded in mid-August. At the beginning of September, that number decreased by 83 files, despite having more open files. Where did those files go? Apparently into the “Administrative Processing” column, which according to Bilous’s latest statement indicates that they have cheques waiting to be processed. But I thought “fully-funded” meant they’ve already received all the money they’re going to get!
If you have observed the number of Small Business DRP applications in High River over the past 9 months, the number of “open” files have swung wildly, from 106 down to 62 back up to 100 and eventually down to the 82 at the latest report. According to members of the DRP Advocacy Committee, that number may drop drastically the next time we see it, as small businesses were given a 45-day timeline to respond (I don’t know what they are supposed to respond to) or their files would be permanently closed. That deadline has passed.
On July 24, the DRP Advocacy Committee indicated that there were 160 cheques that had been approved yet not delivered. Since then, the number of “paid” files has increased only by 18. Are we to therefore assume that there remains 142 cheques floating somewhere in Canada Post-land? Or that 160 cheques were only for 18 people, meaning each person received 8 or 9 cheques? Or perhaps, as Bilous suggests, the “Administrative Processing” column is for those cheques that need to be sent out, as he told the media exactly 103 cheques are ready for mailing. But if that were true, wouldn’t the statistics in July have had 160 in that column?
Between mid-August and early-September, 80 fewer closed residential files across Alberta were considered “paid”. Somehow, people whose files were closed and had been paid out in mid-August suddenly had not received money at the beginning of September. Unless Alberta has 80 Benjamin Buttons, I don’t understand how that’s possible, unless the definition of “paid” has changed.
Webster would have a field day with these problems. The word “defined” means “precise, fixed, or exact”. None of the definitions offered for the terms “open”, “closed”, “fully-funded” or “paid” have been precise or fixed.
“Open” doesn’t really mean requiring closure. Based on how DRP has been run, even a closed file can be open again without entering an appeals process. Interesting to note, while the PCs were in power, the number of “open” files got smaller more quickly. Once the NDP came to power, the number of “open” files suddenly spiked, and the only way to close them is to force the issue, such as with the small business deadline mentioned.
“Paid” doesn’t really mean applicants have received money. It means a cheque has been authorized. It hasn’t necessarily been printed, and certainly doesn’t mean it’s been delivered. I think.
I don’t believe the definition of the term “fully-funded” Mr. Bilous offered, although I suspect the definition was fed to him. None of the statistics up to this point verify his proferred definition. “Fully-Funded” is a particularly confusing term, because what it suggests to me is that those that are not fully-funded have no funding available for them, even though DRP currently has a surplus. Based off information I've received from the DRP Advocacy Committee, this is not far from true. Claimants submit their receipts, and hopefully 100% of those receipts get funded; or claimants who can't afford to pay up front submit quotes for work to be done, and hopefully 90% of these quotes get funded (matching Prentice's January Promise). Those that are in “Administrative Processing” therefore must be files that are open and for whom DRP must lobby government to fund. Those that are in “Eligibility Review” must be those that are being reviewed as to whether or not they are worth lobbying for. Those that have “Action Required” must be those that are waiting to enter into either category. I hope I’m wrong about these, but one thing is for certain; “fully-funded” cannot simply mean claimants in that category have received all they’re going to get.
There is also another designation that hasn't made it to the statistics reports, and that is the term "Complete". At one point in time "Complete" meant everything that could be done with a file was done, the only thing missing was the issuance of a closure letter. Why have this designation if not to delay sending closure letters so as to delay potential appeals?
But that's not even the best part; the term "Complete" has also changed as well, the biggest change surrounding then-Minister of Municipal Affairs Ken Hughes. At one point in time we thought he'd be running for the PC Leadership, and his announcement that all DRP files would be 90% "Complete" by March 31, 2014. When he realized that wasn't possible, he changed what the word meant; "Complete" now meant that DRP had sent out cheques for 90% of receipts received. Suddenly lots of small cheques backlog the system, and claimants get confused when they are told their file is "Complete" yet they haven't handed in all their receipts yet.
This is similar to the current issue around the term "Fully-Funded", it is a term that confuses claimants into thinking they've got all the money they're going to get, so why bother continuing on?
All of this results in the steady, albeit slow, increase in the number of “closed” files (to the tune of two or three files each week). At least that is true in High River, where the DRP Advocacy Committee continues to raise a stink. If you live anywhere else, your number of “closed” files are actually decreasing.
Meanwhile 2014 DRP files (for the floods that happened in southwestern Alberta) have been delayed by the 2013 backlog, and Calgary has been denied DRP funds to deal with “Snowtember”, yet DRP money is not being completely spent. I can only conclude one rationale for all these things.
Someone is trying to save their own skin.
If the 2013 DRP files appear to be closing, and the program manages to turn a surplus, your boss, the Minister of Municipal Affairs, is likely to let you to do your work. He might even give you some leniency for your high rate of staff turnover, the apparently complicated files being closed slowly, and the fact that almost 20% of files go to appeals (much higher than the 10% norm).
Frankly, I might be willing to do the same. Until I see how I’ve been manipulated.
And make no mistake, Mr. Bilous has been manipulated. I would bet certain staff are counting on the fact that Mr. Bilous may not fully understand the definitions of each category of claim, which is why those definitions keep shifting. He may agree with a staff member who says “snow is not an abnormal event in Alberta”, despite “Snowtember 2014” being the heaviest snowfall any September has ever seen in the past 130 years. But the fact is definitions are being manipulated, facts are being blurred, and staff members are keeping their jobs by doing it.
And through it all, somehow one extremely important fact has been lost in the reporting of statistics. At the end of each statistic is a human being.
A human being who has watched their file move from open to fully-funded to administrative processing to fully-funded to closed and paid back to open again to closed and finally to appeals. For over 2 full years.
I personally have lost patience, and I don’t even have a DRP claim. The Disaster Recovery Program is a Disaster in need of Recovery.
The lowest common denominator is not the government; it has changed and DRP has not improved. The lowest common denominator is not the advocates; they too have changed not only their personnel but their approach. It's also not the front-lines staff trying to process the claims, as even the Municipal Affairs Report to Legislature said that staff has had a high rate of turnover. The lowest common denominator is the staff leading the program. Only they could lose files, redefine categories, and manipulate data to make it look like work was getting done when in fact it hasn’t. The goal of a good DRP manager should be to work themselves out of a job. It seems managerial staff in this case are preventing their jobs from being lost, and they’ve managed to do so across a government change through confoundery.
Mr. Bilous must recognize that he has been played, and ask the AEMA Director Shane Schreiber to step aside. Even he named Mr. Schreiber as the individual who has been the main communicator, so therefore the main manipulator of facts.
91% of Alberta Urban Municipalities don't trust DRP. This is why they have called for an independent review. An independent review will allow the rest of the staff to continue working on open files (preferably in a case-management format), and not interrupt their work too much. But more importantly, it will clarify what exactly is going on in those offices, where data has been manipulated, and what must improve so that those who suffer disasters in the future do not have to contend with a governmental disaster as well.
Thanks to the DRP Advocacy Committee, Mr. Clark, and most recently Mr. Anderson and their colleagues for never giving up. While we hope every Albertan never needs to use the Disaster Recovery Program, we must feel as though we can count on it if we do need it.
Alberta Urban Municipalities can't. Neither can I.
Mr. Bilous, fix the DRP.