10/31/2012 03:07 EDT | Updated 12/31/2012 05:12 EST

Nova Scotia premier to review Fisheries lease deal after minister defended it

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's premier unexpectedly put an untendered lease on hold Wednesday, shortly after one of his cabinet ministers defended the deal that would have moved the provincial Fisheries Department from Halifax to the Annapolis Valley.

Darrell Dexter said he is reviewing the move to Cornwallis after the opposition parties questioned whether the 10-year lease, which would've cost $289,000 annually, was a wise use of public money.

"I have the same questions that have been raised by everyone else," said Dexter. "I want the file back to have a look at it just to make sure that everyone is comfortable that this is the best arrangement."

Dexter's comments came about an hour after Fisheries Minister Sterling Belliveau was questioned about the lease for the library at the Lester B. Pearson International Peacekeeping Centre.

Reporters asked Belliveau why the government didn't purchase the building itself, given that it was sold for $162,500 eight days ago, according to an online property listing.

Belliveau said he wasn't aware it was for sale because the lease was handled by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal.

"I'm confident that we made the right decision ... and I'll stand and defend it," Belliveau said.

"We had an aggressive timeline and we wanted these jobs located in rural Nova Scotia."

The government's lease is with the non-profit Cornwallis Park Development Association, which bought the property.

Liberal Opposition Leader Stephen McNeil said the government should have put the deal to tender to ensure it was getting fair market value.

McNeil said he believed the government was playing politics with taxpayers money, calling the lease deal "ridiculous."

"This is a government that made a decision to decentralize, to move the Fisheries Department," said McNeil.

"They are now in a race to get it done before the next election. That's what this is about."

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said Belliveau was not in any position to defend the lease.

"There's no way that the minister with a straight face can say that he got a good deal for taxpayers if he hasn't even done a proper tender and found out what his options were," said Baillie.

The Fisheries Department said the lease was for 743 square metres of office space, a nearby garage and compound.

The department promised to provide a comparison of the lease for the office space it plans to vacate in downtown Halifax — a lease that doesn't expire until 2015. But it did not.

Dexter said he couldn't say whether department officials had exercised proper due diligence.

"I don't know the answer to the question because I haven't seen the file. That's exactly why we are asking the questions."

As part of its program to shift some government jobs from Halifax to rural parts of the province, the government wants to move 20 full-time Fisheries Department jobs to Cornwallis.

Regional staff from the Agriculture and Natural Resources Departments would also share the space.