MLA-owned motel paid $172K in 2022 by social services, says minister

MLA-owned motel paid 2K in 2022 by social services, says minister

Total budget for hotel stays last year was $2.25 million, corrected Minister Gene Makowsky from last week, when he cited $850,000.

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Minister Gene Makowsky said the Sunrise Motel has been a regular vendor used by the Ministry of Social Services to provide emergency shelter to clients over the past year.

Revealed in question period Tuesday, social services paid a total $172,000 to Sunrise Motel in emergency hotel room provisions in 2022.

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The motel is one of “about a dozen or so” hotels across the province that social services utilizes to house clients in need, said the minister Wednesday, “four or five” of which are in Regina.

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A total of $2.25 million in hotel room costs was paid in 2022, Makowsky has now said. The $850,000 figure cited last week represents just that billed through the Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program, he clarified.

“We want to find the balance between taxpayer dollars but also making sure someone has a safe place to stay when they’re in a bad situation,” Makowsky said, of the practice.

“We want to err on the side of looking after people.”

Opposition critic Meara Conway has been asking about Sunrise Motel since last week when she shared that senior Evelyn Harper saw her nightly rate jump from $134 to $200 when social services stepped in to cover her stay at the motel. Conway said Harper had moved into a room after being evicted from government housing.

The motel is owned by MLA Gary Grewal, which Conway says raises conflict of interest questions and fiscal responsibility questions. The ministry asserts he has no part in the daily operations.

She asked Makowsky to table everything that has been paid to Sunrise Motel since Grewal was elected in 2020, as well as a five-year look at total hotel-related spending provincially.

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She also repeated a call from last week to see the relevant policies on hotel stays tabled.

“I’m not saying there’s not a place for hotels,” said Conway. “We’re requesting this information, that is reasonable information that I need as the critic, that the public needs, to assess whether this is a good practice from a fiscal perspective.”

MLAs Gene Makowsky and Gary Grewal
Sunglasses and smiles from Minister of Social Services Gene Makowsky, left, and MLA for Regina Northeast Greg Grewal at the 2023 Queen City Pride Parade in Regina, SK, on Saturday, June 10, 2023. PHOTO: Ken Dumont for Regina Leader-Post jpg

Seeing the number provided jump to $2.25 million warrants an audit by the provincial auditor, Conway said.

Conway called on the government to request one Wednesday, then sought the Legislative Assembly’s support Thursday to direct a special assignment audit on “policies, expenditures and procedures” in the ministry, denied by the majority.

She feels it should raise flags that the province seems unwilling to engage with that process.

“They hold the public purse strings. They’re responsible for government business,” Conway said. “It’s concerning, on its face. If there really is nothing to see here, open up the books.”

Asked why not, Makowsky said the ministry is already conducting an internal review. He said he is “confident” ministry staff are capable of doing that work.

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“The auditor is certainly able, as an officer of the legislature, to look at any matter that they see fit and if that was the case, we’d certainly co-operate fully,” Makowsky said.

Responding in the house, Finance Minister Donna Harpauer said the policies are publicly available to anyone, including the provincial auditor.

In terms of emergency hotel provisions, the ministry’s policy manual for SIS directs a daily cap of $95 per night, and an overall total cap of $500 per client.

No mention is made of security deposits, which Makowsky offered as the reason for the inflated rate in Harper’s case, as they are sometimes “rolled-in” when social services is billed.

Hotel stays may also be covered through child and family assistance, he indicated.

A request from the Leader-Post to provide details on the standing policy around hotel rates and for a list of hotels used by the ministry made last week was not returned as of Thursday.

As to why more figures or details have yet to be spoken to inside the house, Makowsky said ministry staff are working to compile the requested data, but “these things do take time.”

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“There is a lot of detail and the ministry is very busy in day-to-day operations,” he said.

Grewal himself is absent this week due to a personal matter. Makowsky said he will be meeting with the conflict of interest commissioner when he returns.

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