99 stupid things the government spent your money on (III)

Camping trips, escalators to nowhere, and a dog-park demolition

Last week, we brought you items 1-34, two samples of questionable spending on subsidies and infrastructure, as well as food-related and job creation programs. Here we look at public money that went into dubious environmental initiatives and just plain waste. Check us out tomorrow to see even more stupid things your government did with your money .

Canada’s finances may be the envy of the world, but the bar is awfully low these days. Whether it’s Ottawa, the provinces or municipalities, governments across the country face horrendous deficits. We must tighten our belts, say the politicians. Austerity and cutbacks are the order of the day.

Only, you wouldn’t know it looking at this list. What follows is but a slice of the silly, wasteful, craven and often outright stupid ways governments at all levels spent taxpayers’ money over the last year. To find our 99 items, Maclean’s scoured press releases and auditor generals’ reports, contacted watchdog groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and waded through news reports, looking for examples where the money was either spent or announced in 2011. We also included a handful of egregious instances of waste that only came to light in the past 12 months, even if the actual cash was doled out in previous years.

Not everyone will agree with all these items being on the list. Some will justify handouts to companies and sports teams as necessary to “promote economic activity,” or they’ll say a camping program for new immigrants was a nice thing to do. Sure, it would be great if we could afford everything, but at a time when government spending is under the knife, when services and jobs are being cut, it’s clear many of those with their hands on the public purse have yet to come to terms with Canada’s new fiscal reality.

EASY WITH THE GREEN — All things environmental and outdoors

35 Wheat kings: Vancouver council voted to grant the Environmental Youth Alliance Society $5,000 for a project called Lawns to Loaves, through which 30 homeowners in the city could replace their grass lawns with wheat.

36 Camp Canada: About 115 new Canadians were taken on a camping trip partly funded by taxpayers. The Learn to Camp project aims to teach the recent immigrants how to “put up a tent, how to start a campfire, [and] how to make some S’mores,” according to a Parks Canada spokesperson. There’s still no word on exactly how much it will cost, or how many cases of Molson will be consumed.

37 Buzz off: Environment Canada spent $1 million to buy 14,000 “weatheradios” for schools, girl guides and scout troops. The devices, which look like a radio alarm clock, provide 24-hour weather-related broadcasts and sound a special tone to alert listeners to impending weather emergencies. Or they could just leave a regular alarm clock radio tuned to a 24-hour news station with weather updates every 10 minutes.

38 Nature overload: It’s no secret that Canadians love the outdoors. We have to. There’s just so damn much of it. Yet, Environment Canada still spent $456,000 on a national survey on the importance of nature to Canadians—the fifth time it has done so since 1981. Have our attitudes about trees, lakes and birds really changed that much over the years?

39 Carbon credit conundrum: In 2008 the B.C. government created the Pacific Carbon Trust, a Crown corporation, to make the world a greener place, apparently by picking the pockets of the province’s school boards and other government agencies. It was revealed in August that school districts were forced last year to buy $4.4 million in carbon credits to seek penance for such sins as heating their schools. The trust then spent its windfall so companies such as Encana and Intrawest could reduce their emissions, recycling money that might be better used by students rather than profitable corporations.

40 Uphill ride: Montrealers came to the rescue of Bixi, the troubled bike-sharing program the city owns, with a $108-million bailout package made up of loans and loan guarantees. The non-profit, money-losing company has faced problems as it expanded to Toronto and Ottawa, but Mayor Gérald Tremblay insisted taxpayer money would all be paid back once Bixi becomes an international bike-sharing powerhouse. Not so fast, warned the city’s auditor general. Montreal taxpayers could suffer significant losses, he said, because “basic rules of management were neglected or circumvented.”

41 Ontario taxpayers were handed an $18.6-million bill by an industry group over the province’s failed eco-fee program.

42 Campaigns to ban bottled water exposed just how much provinces and cities pay to buy packaged H20, such as $750,000 in Manitoba from 2004 to 2010 and as much as $7 million by Ottawa since 2006.

ANIMAL CRACKERS — When prudence goes to the dogs

43 Bear minimum: Environment Canada paid consultants $41,300 to find out the value of Canada’s polar bear population. Turns out each one is worth $400,000, or $6.3 billion for the lot. Just think of the dent that could be made in Canada’s deficit if we sold them off.

44 Animal tracks: The Yukon government spent $1 million to build two “wildlife culverts” for an expensive new subdivision in Whitehorse so moose would stay off the newly constructed road. That’s commendable, except the culverts helped push the price of lots in the government-owned development to as much as $218,000, and one-third of the 30 lots failed to sell.

45 Something fishy: The feds gave $717,000 to establish the International Centre for Sturgeon Studies at Vancouver Island University, the latest in a string of government funding announcements, going back a decade, all meant to jump-start the industry. To date there is only one producer of farmed sturgeon in Canada.

46 Barking mad: The City of Toronto tore up a dog park it had built just two years earlier at a cost of $40,000 after several nearby homeowners complained of the noise.

MONEY FOR NOTHING — You don’t always get what you pay for

47 Going up? Users of Montreal’s spiffy new bus station, which opened in December, are privy to a striking oddity: escalators to nowhere. The station, located on the lower floor of the Université de Québec à Montréal’s Îlot Voyageur, was meant to be the school’s commerce and residence hub, but today largely remains a $300-million taxpayer-funded concrete skeleton. Nine escalators were installed to take users to the mezzanine, at a cost of up to $200,000; because it has been abandoned—and won’t be used any time soon—a wall was built straight across the stairs.

48 Nothing ads up: The Canada Revenue Agency spent $750,000 on an ad campaign warning against “under the table” home renovations, then gave another $113,000 to a polling firm to find out the ads “did not have a statistically significant impact.”

49 Cubicle hell: Environment Canada spent $140,000 to store office furniture for a year, only to eventually sell it off at auction and replace it with new workspaces.

50 Failing grade: B.C. school boards paid an estimated $350,000 to mail out blank report cards after teachers refused to fill them out as part of a job action.

51 Not so exotic: Fredericton, N.B., bought the city’s only strip club, North Star Sports Bar Pub and Eatery, to shut it down. The property was assessed at $364,900 but the city paid a premium price of $500,000 to buy it, then turned around and sold it for $400,000, incurring an immediate $100,000 loss.

52 Crime pays: Manitoba’s publicly owned insurance company handed out $41,000 to eight convicted car thieves injured in stolen vehicles between 2006 and 2011.

53 Reboot needed: The City of Edmonton spent $500,000 on licences for software that an auditor said hardly any employees ever use.

54 Canada donated $36 million to China, a country that’s accumulated US$3 trillion in foreign reserves.

55 The Royal Canadian Mint spent $7.3 million to make 486 million new pennies, at a cost of roughly 1.5 cents each.

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