TORONTO—Ontario’s Liberal government insists it did not purchase snowplows and other equipment for companies it contracted to maintain roads and highways.
For months, Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca boasted about how the province put 100 additional pieces of snow clearing equipment on the roads after a scathing auditor general’s report in April, which found some of the government’s contractors didn’t have enough plows.
Del Duca on Nov. 30 admitted that he wasn’t entirely clear on who owns the snowplows and other equipment that was purchased after the government realized some contractors weren’t adequately equipped to clear highways.
“My understanding is that when we work with the contractor and we provide additional equipment, that the equipment will stay in the region for the work that will be ongoing,” Del Duca said.
But it turns out the minister’s understanding was wrong, and his staff later clarified that the plows and sanders are owned by the private contractors who previously didn’t have enough equipment to fulfil their contracts.
“We’ve invested millions in the past three years to put more equipment on the road, but we never paid as a purchase,” said press secretary Patrick Searle. “We pay the company to provide us a service, as opposed to the government owning a fleet of winter maintenance vehicles.”
Progressive Conservative transportation critic Michael Harris said the government had to spend millions of dollars to buy plows and other snow clearing equipment for the companies it contracted to clear highways of snow.
Four of those contracts have been scrapped, and Harris said it was “insane” that the minister didn’t know the equipment that was purchased would be owned by the contractors.
“The government handed over millions of dollars to buy 100 pieces of equipment for these contractors,” he said.
Harris said Ontario taxpayers paid almost $15 million for plows and sanders to equip private contractors, who he said shouldn’t have been awarded highway maintenance contracts in the first place.
“Whether the government bought them or the government paid for them, I’ll let the minister figure out what story he’s eventually going to communicate,” said Harris.
The government said the $15 million covered the cost of additional work it requested, such as clearing passing lanes and highway shoulders.
Auditor general Bonnie Lysyk’s special report found that having enough equipment to clear highways of snow and ice accounted for only 15 per cent of the criteria on which contractors were evaluated for the contracts.
“The only factor considered from this point on was how low a price the contractor bid,” she said.
The government paid $1.7 million in additional costs for 13 pieces of snow clearing equipment for the lowest bidder on one road contract worth $700,000, even though the second-lowest bidder had enough plows and could have done the job “at a significantly lower cost,” added Lysyk.
The New Democrats said the Liberals like to reward their friends with government contracts.
“I would not be surprised if we find out at some point through an FOI or some other way that in fact that they’ve just bought brand spanking new equipment for some private company,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.