The Saskatchewan government says it’s changing how it procures hotels for those on social assistance after a motel owned by a legislature member raised rates when the province paid.
The Saskatchewan Party government says in a letter released Friday it will now get quotes from three hotels and direct people to the cheapest one while also considering their safety, needs and circumstances.
The province is also planning a one-year pilot project to publicly procure blocks of five rooms each in Regina and Saskatoon at a confirmed rate, allowing the government to evaluate whether the approach is cost effective, it says.
“I think maybe there’s a perception out there that we might not have got the best price based on the one case that we heard in the legislature,” Social Services Minister Gene Makowsky told reporters Friday.
“We want to be as transparent as possible going forward and to be able to ensure that we have people looked after.”
Last year, Saskatchewan’s Opposition NDP raised questions when the Sunrise Motel owned by Gary Grewal, a Saskatchewan Party backbencher, charged a higher nightly rate for a woman who checked in when the province paid her bill.
Motel receipts provided by the NDP show the client paid $132 a night, plus a $200 damage deposit, when she initially checked in.
However, when the Ministry of Social Services decided to foot the bill, the receipts show the government paid $168 a night then $200 a night a few days later.
Grewal has disclosed to the conflict of interest commissioner that he owns the motel but has said he does not manage its day-to-day operations.
Makowksy said the province thought it could strengthen its policies after the case involving Grewal’s hotel came to light.
“We can always do better,” Makowksy said.
In the letter, addressed to the NDP, the province says it spent more than $220,000 for stays at the Sunrise Motel in the 2022-23 fiscal year for an average of $151 per night. It was the most used location for recipients in Regina.
Also in Regina, the government paid the Coachman Inn Motel more than $180,000 last year for an average of $128 per night, and the Thriftlodge by Wyndham got $163,000 for an average of $186 per night.
The province spent $2.1 million in total for hotels across the province last year.
Makowsky said social workers choose hotels based on their availability and willingness to accept those on social services.
He said some have chosen not to accept certain clients because they’ve previously damaged rooms or have disturbed other patrons.
Rates the province has paid look to be higher than what’s viewable online because all the charges aren’t reflected on websites, the minister added.
“Getting those quotes (will help) the caseworkers and the ministry understand what is available. And hopefully we’re able to use, as much as we can, the lowest price provider,” Makowsky said.
He said the province typically works with three hotels for those on social assistance. He hopes the pilot project will allow the province to add more choices.
Meara Conway, the NDP social services critic, said the province’s changes show it’s trying to do damage control.
She still has questions over why the government paid Grewal’s hotel more money as the years went on, she said.
The province’s letter says it paid the Sunrise Motel $282in 2018-19. That steadily grew over five years and jumped to $220,000 in 2022-23.
Grewal was elected in 2020, Conway noted.
“This only further exacerbates fears around the suggestion on its face that government MLAs are profiteering from their membership in government, possibly from failed housing policies,” she said.
Conway said the province misled the public on its hotel policy. She said Makowsky previously told reporters hotel usage has been trending downward, but it has actually increased.
“What are the conditions that are creating this need to rely on hotels so much?” she asked.
“These are reactive solutions to the growing homelessness, poverty, mental health and addictions crisis we’re seeing out there.
“I would really like to see how the minister is going to tackle those empty (housing) units and acknowledge (the Saskatchewan Income Support) program has been a failure.”
Conway said she also wonders why the government only provided costs up to September and not later. There’s also no explanation as to why the province doesn’t pay damage deposits, she said.
The NDP has received responses to its freedom of information requests into the matter, Conway said, and her party is reviewing them.