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Environment Canada owed $2-million, audit says

Environment Canada is trying to clean up a toxic spill on its balance sheets.

A recently released audit shows the department is owed some $2-million, and roughly a third of the late payments are overdue by more than a year.

But debt collectors at Environment Canada are struggling to get people to pay up - and they're not exactly threatening to kneecap those who can't cough up the cash on time.

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"There is a significant lack of follow-up both within the regional accounting offices and in departmental accounting," the audit says.

"The lack of vigorous action on collections increases the risk that receivables owed to the department will not be recovered.

"Although some of these debts are relatively small, they are receivables due to the department and should be collected, failing which they should be written off."

The audit found debtors - not counting other government departments or agencies - owed Environment Canada $2.2-million as of Feb. 6.

Of that, more than a half-million dollars was overdue by a year or longer.

But the people waiting longest to pay also owe the least.

Close to 86 per cent of accounts overdue by a year or more owed less than $500, the audit found - and most of that was accumulated interest.

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"Steps should have been taken earlier to collect these debts or to write them off," the audit says.

The head the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says the more money Ottawa recoups from overdue accounts, the less it has to raise through taxes.

"I'm in an awkward position, which I'm seldom in, of suggesting that the government should do a better job collecting money that it's properly entitled to," Kevin Gaudet said.

"If it did that, then the rest of us might be spared some of the taxes that we're required to pay to cover off for those who don't pay what they're supposed to pay."

Environment Canada recently released the audit, which is dated June 22. No one from the department was immediately available for comment.

Environment Canada generates most of its revenue from "sales of goods and information products," the audit shows. That includes sales of publications, maps and charts, as well as products in electronic formats, such as computerized lists.

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Treasury Board guidelines require departments to vigorously go after unpaid debts.

Environment Canada sends monthly invoices to people who owe money for the first three months that they're late. But what happens after that varies across the department.

Some offices follow up with the debtor. Some let managers know the payment is late. And other offices simply don't know what to do.

"The accounting offices mentioned that they would like to receive more information about the methods of collection available to them, especially for debts outstanding for more than 90 days," the audit says.

"For example, at what point should the services of a collection agency be used, and beginning at what amount?

"Some accounting offices would also like to have better definition of the roles and responsibilities of accounting office employees and those of the managers - in particular of who is responsible for collecting sums receivables - in order to ensure that effective follow-up is done."

The auditors say Environment Canada agreed with their recommendations and now has a plan to address them.

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