Fitch faces new questions over trust fund use

The Alward government is continuing to face questions over its decision to siphon $4 million from the Environmental Trust Fund to pay for flood damage in Perth-Andover.

Liberal MLA Bernard LeBlanc says Fitch creates a 'bad precedent'

Liberal MLA Bernard LeBlanc and Environment Minister Bruce Fitch debate the use of the Environmental Trust Fund in question period 5:18

The Alward government is continuing to face questions over its decision to siphon $4 million from the Environmental Trust Fund to pay for flood damage in Perth-Andover.

Critics from the Liberals and NDP say using the money to move flood-prone houses to safer ground violates guidelines in the trust fund’s legislation.

Liberal MLA Bernard LeBlanc, the opposition’s environment critic, said Environment Minister Bruce Fitch was "pilfering" money from the trust fund.

LeBlanc said Fitch is setting a dangerous precedent by using the fund to help Perth-Andover.

Environment Minister Bruce Fitch defended his government's decision to use money from the Environmental Trust Fund to flood-proof homes in Perth-Andover. (CBC)

"What are you going to do in the future when earthquakes or other things pop up? Are you going to use that fund for that purpose as well?" LeBlanc asked.

"While we believe that the government should be moving to address the issue of Perth-Andover, we have grave concerns that the minister is setting a dangerous precedent by taking money."

LeBlanc asked Fitch why the provincial government didn’t use the Environmental Trust Fund to help pay to flood-proof homes in Charlotte County roughly two years ago.

"The language that [LeBlanc] used is really derogatory. When the people of Perth-Andover are fearful for their lives and the opposition acts this way, it is really deplorable," Fitch said in question period.

"I think that the members opposite should stand up and say whether they care for the people of Perth-Andover, whether they would go forward with a mitigation and adaptation plan, and whether they would do relocations for some of the residents there who are in harm’s way."

The New Brunswick government is spending $8.5 million this year from the trust fund, which is the largest expenditure in 14 years.

However, the grants to community groups were frozen at $4 million and only 174 community projects were approved, which is the fewest in more than a decade. Fitch said 150 groups had their applications for funding rejected by the provincial government.

Meanwhile, the $4 million for the Perth-Andover project is the single largest grant made in the trust fund's 23-year history.

NDP demands answers

New Democratic Party Leader Dominic Cardy is also demanding the environment minister explain how he has the authority to use the fund to move or flood-proof the houses in Perth-Andover.

Cardy said the decision appears to violate the fund's basic rules.

"The government needs to explain much more clearly how under the legislation this can be done," Cardy said.

"What it looks like is they just found this pot of money and decided to throw it over to Perth-Andover because they haven’t used it for anything else in the last few years and that is not acceptable."

The Environmental Trust Fund legislation says activities on private land are not generally supported by the fund.

Fitch again defended the use of the fund on Wednesday, saying it is the provincial government’s authority to make those decisions.

"For the $4 million coming out of the ETF that is a decision of government they have the right in order to take that money out," he said.

Last week, Fitch claimed that a major reason for using the trust fund in the northwestern village was to avoid increasing the deficit.

But that claim is being countered by the province’s chief financial watchdog.

CBC News confirmed with the Office of the Auditor General that all provincial government expenditures add to the deficit, including expenditures from trust funds.