An exchange during Question Period in the B.C. Legislature on Tuesday between Opposition Leader Rich Coleman and Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth:
R. Coleman: Yesterday we heard a disturbing narrative from the Minister of Forests. According to his logic, unless an MLA reaches out on a daily call or complains about something, people like Harold’s Restaurant in Kamloops aren’t getting paid — or won’t be paid.
I’ve owned a small business, and I know what it’s like to meet payroll every month. I also know that it’s tough to run a business when you have accounts receivable that take too long to be paid. Once it goes past 30 days, the bank will give you 50 cents on the dollar. They start asking for personal guarantees. They ask for assignment of the value of your home. Margins can be tight. People get stressed. But the first job of a small business person is to pay their payroll to their employees.
Can the Premier explain to this House why small businesses and hard-working families they represent, who’ve been out there helping to give services to people at risk from fires and suffering from the fires…? Why isn’t this government paying them, and why they can’t get their act together?
Hon. M. Farnworth: I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his question. The fact of the matter is that in this unprecedented fire season, the government is paying its bills to small business right across this province. There has been more than $200 million so far this fire season paid out to small businesses and contractors right across British Columbia who have been providing services to those who have been dealing with the fires in our communities.
In terms of the issue the minister specifically raised, the number of staff that government has increased, which is normally one…. And we’re operating, Leader of the Opposition, on a system that your government had in place. We’ve increased the number of staff to 50. They are dealing with those issues on a day-to-day basis.
There is an unprecedented number of receipts there. They are working on getting that backlog. But let’s be clear. Those businesses are getting paid, and they will get paid. The fact of the matter is that to say they’re not is just wrong.
Mr. Speaker: Leader of the Official Opposition on a supplemental.
R. Coleman: Let me tell something to the member opposite. That is, I was the minister responsible for his role in 2003, and I never had a single complaint from anybody in British Columbia that wasn’t getting paid. Harold’s Restaurant is still owed $40,000. They’re a small restaurant in Kamloops taking vouchers to feed the people you’re evacuating, going through your evacuation centres. They haven’t been paid. That’s not acceptable.
Two hundred million out of a $600 million fire season. I’ve got to ask: where is the rest of the money for the other small businesses that are still waiting to be paid in British Columbia? You’re government now. You’re not just accountable to your constituents. You’re also accountable to the constituents of Quesnel, Williams Lake, 100 Mile House, Ashcroft and other communities where people have stepped up on behalf of British Columbians.
I want to know: will you like to pay these people or not? And if you don’t want to pay them and you’ve got the cheques ready, give them to my MLAs. We’ll courier them for you this afternoon.
Hon. M. Farnworth: Well, it’s a bit rich, listening to the Leader of the Opposition complain about what’s happened today, when we’re dealing with a system that has been in place by his government for the last 16 years. The fact of the matter is….
Mr. Speaker: Members, the Chair will hear the comment.
Hon. M. Farnworth: Harold’s Restaurant has already received $7,500. There’s another $12,500 in the midst of being processed. But let’s be clear. We are dealing with a system for this kind of management put in place by this government, and one of the things we’ve learnt that we will be dealing with when this crisis is over is moving it into the 21st century.
We are dealing with a system based on vouchers when the Red Cross deals with it digitally. There are 50,000 forms alone in Kamloops that were filled out every three days by people wanting to get assistance from this government. The ministries have been trying to get it digitized, but for 16 years, that lot over that ignored it.
Small business have got to get paid, and they’re going to get paid as quickly as possible.
Mr. Speaker: Leader of the Official Opposition on a second supplemental.
R. Coleman: The member is right. We built the B.C. emergency management system — with the team synced with bureaucrats across the province that go in and work immediately to save people — so well that 37,000 people were evacuated safely from their homes during the worst fire season in the history of British Columbia. That system of emergency management works very well in this province, but I do know one thing from being in that member’s position at one time: the accountants aren’t out there fighting the fires. So they can sit down and pay the bills.
Even if you give Harold’s Restaurant the next $12,500, they’re still owed over another $20,000. Why don’t you give it all to them? Are you just going to wait till they go broke? Hon. Member, step up and pay the bills on behalf of the people of British Columbia.
Hon. M. Farnworth: This government is stepping up, is paying the bills and is going to ensure that we have a better system in the coming years than what this government left. We’ve had, honourable Speaker….
Mr. Speaker: Members, the Chair will hear the response.
Hon. M. Farnworth: The folks at emergency management B.C. have done an amazing job. They’ve done amazing work, but one of the challenges they face is that we are on a paper-based system that this government didn’t reform or change once in 16 years. The Red Cross moved to an electronic system some time ago.
We are dealing with an unprecedented situation in this province that resulted in an unprecedented number of not only claims but of forms that are being checked — when this government only had one individual in the office to deal with it — one person. There are now 50 people…. There are now 50 people dealing with the forms and the claims. Those claims are being processed as quickly as possible. More than $200 million has already gone out, and when issues are identified and brought to our attention, they are dealt with as quickly as possible. As I’ve said, the system is working. It is going to be improved.
Hon. M. Farnworth: You know, hon. Member, the fact of the matter is that you stood in this House yesterday and said that Harold’s has already received $7,500. There is near $12,500 coming on the way, and the system for payment is going be improved — because after 16 years, these guys were stuck in the past; we’re going to make sure it’s digitized and moved into the future.
Source: B.C. Hansard, Draft