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.
I spoke to a former PC supporter recently who voted for the new Premier. I've also read a blog by a PC supporter as well. Both indicated that the new Premier has given them hope that the PC party can lead the province again. These responses, only two weeks into Jim Prentice's Premiership, lead me to ask the question;
Do you like fishing with knots and kinks in your line?
Me, I'd prefer to fish with a good straight line. I have a better chance of getting the job done without the line breaking ... again.
Make no mistake, anyone who believes in the PC party's ability to govern is fishing with knots in their line. And there are a lot of knots.
Prentice was silent in his first week as Premier. He spent that entire week loosening knots so that he could unravel them in public in his second week, as a way of saying "look, I'm fixing things!"
But a trust is broken. The line is kinked. That makes the line weak. And Alberta is a big fish.
Not only that, but he has ignored some fairly significant knots that remain, and have no glimmer of hope that they be untied.
The Disaster Recovery Program, or DRP (which in flood-affected communities is now a three-letter swear word) is not even on Prentice's radar. He mentioned nothing of it to Diana McQueen, who is now the fourth minister in 14 months to be in charge of the program. The program is in shambles, and hundreds of people still remain displaced from their homes.
It was one place former Premier Alison Redford tried to keep the line straight, by telling flood victims that they would be helped to full recovery. Then other ministers like Doug Griffiths, Ken Hughes, and lastly Greg Weadick tied it into the DRP knot. And this isn't just some shoe-tying knot, this is a Gordian knot, and Prentice is no Alexander the Great.
Another knot made bigger since the 2012 election was patronage appointments. Starting with Evan Berger, who was ousted in the last election but given a sweet management position in the Agriculture Ministry, this knot was made bigger by the appointments of Stephen Mandel in Health and Gordon Dirks in Education. Nothing suggests that Mandel and Dirks can't do a good job, it's just that no Albertan chose them. Prentice might be able to untie the patronage knot, but that kink will always be in the PC line, making voters wonder if they just can't see the trough for the pigs.
A kink sits where the government aircraft knot once sat. Just because government officials can't take advantage of planes anymore doesn't mean there aren't other ways. That kink can still knot up again, but it might not be airplanes doing it.
The entire Education portfolio is tied up in knot after knot. Former Education Minister Jeff Johnson started by bargaining in bad faith (knot 1), compromising teachers' private emails (knot 2), legislating instead of negotiating (knot 3), trumpeting an uninformed taskforce on teaching excellence (knot 4), usurping teacher conduct review unnecessarily (knot 5), and attempting to force Boards to provide information that had no chance of being compiled properly (knot 6).
Prentice had a chance to start loosening these knots back in August at a gathering of some of the most influential teachers in the province. He skipped it. Instead, he appointed someone nobody had the opportunity to speak to about Education. To teachers, that equates to appointing someone with no intention of listening. Teachers will say they hope that's not the case, but they have no proof. Not only that, but Jeff Johnson was given another portfolio, but rather than the defenceless youth, now he's in charge of the defenceless seniors.
Prentice also made an attempt at untying a knot when he announced the opening of four starter schools in Calgary. But have you ever tried to untie a knot using mittens? That is in effect what he's doing when he builds makeshift schools with no gyms, libraries, music rooms or other specialty spaces. Taxpayer dollars will be spent on sub-par temporary buildings that will direct resources away from the permanent facilities that are meant to replace them. That's like using 4-pound test line to fish for tuna ... after dark.
Am I taking the metaphor too far when I say schools of fish will never be caught with this tangled line?Albertans need a hook. Albertans need a straight line. And Albertans need a strong angler to reel us in.
The PCs have no hook. Their line is so kinked and knotted it looks like it's been braided by a four-year-old. And Prentice is no fisherman.
Recently, Minister of Municipal Affairs Ken Hughes announced that, despite former estimates, only 90% of DRP files would be closed at the end of March, 2014. Then he took another step back and said "no wait, not until the end of June, now", which basically means a full year of homelessness for those affected. Not that I'm surprised, he inherited a mess from his predecessor, Doug Griffiths.
However, in order to meet those targets, people who were already told they are going to be covered through the DRP are now being told "nevermind, no money for you."
The best example of this is the first completed DRP file in High River. That file refers to the basement of Richard Murray. On September 23, 2013 he was given approval to go forward with rebuilding his basement in writing. Throughout the next two months, he rebuilt, had inspected, adjusted, continued rebuilding, inspected, and completed his basement all with great collaboration with the DRP office. On November 23, 2013, all paperwork for his claim was considered complete, and he was given every indication that he would be given his funds. He followed all the rules, and worked very closely and collegially with the decision-makers.
On March 11, 2014, Murray got a brief phone call saying that his DRP claim was denied in full. When he asked why, the response was "we have no details for you."
The result is that he will no longer be an Albertan. He will be moving to British Columbia. What's even more telling about this is that he has dedicated decades of his volunteer service to High River, even running for the public service of Town Councillor in the last election. In the end, the Disaster Recovery Program has run this incredibly dedicated community advocate out of town.
Why on Earth, or in Alberta, would the DRP process choose to rip this man's spleen out through his throat like that?
DRP has been changed multiple times since the first files were created. Any file completed before the latest iteration of the DRP process will be referred to a "special review" process. To me, this smacks of duplication; files that were already well-handled are being held back to be looked over one more, two more, seven more times.
If DRP was broken the first time, all those first files will be wrong too, right?
That's not what was broken. The first files completed were the ones done well. Reviewing them added a significantly unnecessary bureaucratic layer. What was broken was the multitude of files that did not get addressed, did not have deadlines met from the government side, and did not get money in a timely fashion to the residents who desperately needed.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. If it is broke, don't fix the pieces that work.
Hughes stepped back from his commitment to complete the DRP process to only complete 90%. Apparently, even that target is so hard to hit, that files that were stuck in the "special review" process were simply too much to handle.
So they called Richard Murray to say "no money for you", with no further details. The only logical conclusion is that they've done so because those details are "we just don't want to handle your file anymore." It's the only way they'll hit that target.
And considering the political turbidity surrounding the PC Party of Alberta right now, they can't afford to miss another target.
How many other High Riverites are going to get the exact same phone call? All the ones who did get their files started early theoretically have been living in relief. Those who did not are the ones who are most in needed of mental health support. Now that the ones who got their files started early are being told they are under "special review", the DRP program is now forcing even those early-starters into mental health disarray.
Just to meet a target, to save a party, to retain power.
If people can't rebuild their basements, homes and businesses, they can't move back. Therefore, they won't shop in High River. They won't open up shop in High River. They won't work in High River. They won't break bread with each other in High River. They won't play in High River. They certainly will have no vested interest in protecting it and rebuilding it for the future.
With this new revelation, I can confidently say High River is dying. And right now, the easiest and most valid scapegoat is the one thing preventing residents, workers, business owners, and community builders from moving back into town.
The Disaster Recovery Program.
So my call to Ken Hughes is to completely shift his position on the completion of the DRP. Not renewing a contract with LandLink is a good decision, but letting them keep the files they've already got is not going to solve the issue of their involvement. The current position is forcing active files to be rammed through, and if necessary cancelled, with little to no consideration for the people and communities they directly affect.
I am asking that Hughes commit to fully fund every Disaster Recovery Program claim as property owners have been promised. I am asking him to completely remove LandLink from the process with no exceptions. I am asking his office take over any remaining outstanding files where no statement of coverage has been offered to the property owner. I am also asking him to add the consideration of these two questions in the completion of those outstanding files;
Lastly, I’m asking that he resist every urge to shift a deadline or target date again. Flood victims need something stable to work with, and the regular shifting of deadlines and target dates leaves them with complete instability.
Or else I fear for the future of my town.
Good news does abound, and while it took a long time, Richard Murray now has received his DRP payments. However, he has some sage advice for all those who have dealt with DRP, and the advice does not end once you've received your cheque. I recommend reading the article here, as it can not be said better than by the man himself.