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$731,000 in Social Services’ hotel expenses go under microscope

Daily Leg Update: Meara Conway roasts government over $731,000 paid to Sunrise Motel and Thriftlodge since Gary Grewal was elected.
NDP critic Meara Conway speaks to reporters after another grilling of Gene Makowsky in Question Period April 16.

REGINA - The controversy surrounding Social Services payments for client stays at the Sunrise Motel and Thriftlodge refuses to go away.

On Tuesday, NDP Social Services Critic Meara Conway was hammering Social Services Minister Gene Makowsky on the issue in Question Period. She pointed to $731,000 in Social Services payments to both hotels for client stays. What’s more, Conway pointed out the use of both hotels spiked up after Regina Northeast MLA Gary Grewal was first elected to the legislature in 2020, with Grewal having ownership stakes in both of those hotels in question.

A coincidence? Conway did not seem to think so based on the exchange with Makowsky that was recorded in Hansard:

Ms. Conway: — “Mr. Speaker, when you look at the timeline of the dollars paid out to motels connected for the Sask Party member for Regina Northeast, there’s something that doesn’t add up. Between the Thriftlodge and the Sunrise, only $1,309 were paid out to those two motels total over the previous three years to the 2020 election. But once the member for Regina Northeast was elected, the total paid out to those motels jumped to $731,000. 1,300 before the election; three-quarters of a million dollars after the election. How can the minister explain this explosion of payments made to hotels connected to his officemate, the member for Regina Northeast?”

Hon. Mr. Makowsky: — “Mr. Speaker, in terms of expenditures, it is required at times when there’s an emergency situation, when all the other options are full, the shelter side of things in general, we’ve been very . . . The ministry has worked very hard to increase the amount of spaces in many different settings to help vulnerable people. When there’s an overflow situation, hotels are used. They’ve been used for many, many years, Mr. Speaker.

“Unfortunately over time, particularly here in Regina, there has been a decrease in the amount of hotels and obviously the rooms associated with that that are willing to take on clients, particularly on the income assistance side. We haven’t seen that on the child and family side, Mr. Speaker. So any time there’s a same amount of expenditures but less facilities willing to take those on, those expenditures will go up in each of those remaining particular hotels…”

Ms. Conway: — “Mr. Speaker, we haven’t been over this many times. We got these numbers last night. So I’ll ask again. $1,300 before the election, three-quarters of a million dollars after the election. How does the minister justify paying out so many public dollars to the member from Regina Northeast?

Hon. Mr. Makowsky: — “Of course, Mr. Speaker, as I said, I don’t pay that out. That is done by officials within the ministry, and so that process has been talked about. But in a general sense, we have been over this many, many times, and I have no involvement in any procurement or the decisions where to put clients in vulnerable situations, Mr. Speaker.

“I’ve asked that member several times, what is the amount per night that she would be not willing to go over, Mr. Speaker. She won’t, of course, say a number. I think this proves once again this is all about politics for the NDP. They’re once again putting politics over people.”

Ms. Conway: — “Mr. Speaker, in 2018 there were zero dollars paid out to the Thriftlodge motel. In 2019 there were zero dollars paid out to the Thriftlodge motel. In 2020 there were zero dollars paid out to the Thriftlodge motel. Then in 2021, after the election, $46,000. In 2022, up to $164,000. The following year, the first half of the following year, up again to $140,000 for just the first half of that year, on trend to far surpass the year before. Zero before the MLA was elected, three-quarters of a million after he was elected to this Sask Party government. Mr. Speaker, why did the payments to the Thriftlodge only start after the member from Northeast was elected and after that minister assumed the role of Minister of Social Services?”

Hon. Mr. Makowsky: — “Once again, Mr. Speaker, unfortunate the member is choosing to play gutter politics here in the Assembly. I’ve answered this question many times before. Asked, then answered, Mr. Speaker….”

Ms. Conway: — “Mr. Speaker, I’m sorry that the minister finds it offensive that he’s being asked questions around basic accountability, but surely it says more about him than me. Mr. Speaker, Saskatchewan people deserve answers and transparency when it comes to their public dollars. Saskatchewan people work hard for their money. They don’t want to see public dollars wasted on inflated hotel rates at hotels connected to Sask Party MLAs. They want their dollars going to classroom supports for kids ... or to highways or to sustainable housing, Mr. Speaker, or to literally anything other than businesses connected to Sask Party MLAs.

“How does the minister justify spending three-quarters of a million dollars to hotels connected to a Sask Party MLA when there are so many other needs in this province going unmet today?”

The Speaker: — “I’d like to caution the member from Regina Elphinstone-Centre about making personal comments. Just take that into account. I recognize the Minister of Social Services.”

Hon. Mr. Makowsky: — “Mr. Speaker, in terms of the member, of course I’m not offended by any questions, and I’m not sure what gave her that impression. But happy to do so and done so many times, Mr. Speaker. And I’ve gone over this many times. When this information came forward, I took a look at it. I asked the ministry to find the information the member asked for, first of all, and that was provided several times. As a result of that, asked the ministry to make some changes in terms of procurement, something I had nothing to do with, and officials confirmed that last night in estimates. The new policy will hopefully drive those costs down, increase the amount of units available in case there is a situation where it is needed, an emergency situation. And having a block of hotel rooms guaranteed, we’ll see how that goes, Mr. Speaker, in terms of using damage deposits. Again that hopefully will reduce the price and increase the competition.”

Speaking to reporters on the issue Tuesday after Question Period, Conway did not back down in her criticism.

“Look, my job is to scrutinize and critique the government. We’re demanding basic accountability. These numbers could not be more damning. They could not be more damning, we’ve had to fight for them for months. And now we see it’s not just one hotel, but its a second hotel that follows this exact same pattern. No business from the Ministry of Social Services before Gary Grewal, who financially benefits from these hotels, was elected, and then after the election we see huge spike in business with that hotel, three-quarters of a million dollars. It’s damning, it’s right there in black-and-white. I know they want to make this about something personal. The numbers speak for themselves. It’s unacceptable, they haven’t provided a satisfactory answer.”

She added that “these hotels were charging two of the most inflated rates in the province. 60 per cent in the case of the Sunrise, over 100 per cent in the case of the Thriftlodge. There’s not a single hotel across the province used by Social Services that inflated their rates more than the Thriftlodge Hotel. I haven’t seen them take any ownership of that. I haven’t seen them provide any response to those concerns.

Ministry official Jeff Redekop, executive director of income assistance with Social Services, spoke to reporters later and was asked why the payments to Sunrise and Thriftlodge had increased since 2020.

“I think coming out of the pandemic there was a heightened attention to the needs of people with complex needs, and the ministry has continued to step up to make sure that people in need have emergency shelter, whether that’s referral to a shelter or going to a hotel — wemake sure people are served. Coming out of that period of the pandemic the last couple of years there was heightened attention to people with those complex needs, and we’lll make sure that we’re providing support to those who need it.”

As for why those two hotels in particular were selected, “going back in time our staff in the ministry the priority is looking after clients to make sure the people that leave in secure and have a place to stay. So they would look to referral to an emergency shelter, or they might look to speaking with the individual to stay with friends, if they’ve got an option, or to a hotel. When selecting a hotel, it was a matter of which hotels were available which would accept a client from our ministry, and that was the process. 

“Now, flash forward to now, following in the last few weeks, we’ve implemented a new procedure where we seek three quotes from hotels in communities including Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, and Moose Jaw, and we look for the lowest quote, and when someone comes in to require a stay, our staff will go down the list and select the lowest quote and then move to the next one and then move the next one. And the bottom line is making sure that people are served and safe.”

Redekop added that frontline staff are looking for what option is available for clients in need and that the ministry “generally no knowledge of who owns a hotel and has never been instructed by government to use a certain hotel. It’s about the needs of the client.”