OTTAWA – The minister responsible for the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system can't guarantee that the tab to get things under control won’t hit a billion dollars.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough says she can’t promise that taxpayers won’t be on the hook for a sky high bill to tame the payroll program that’s been smouldering for years.

On CTV's Question Period, host Evan Solomon asked Qualtrough if the cost to fix the public service pay system could hit a billion dollars. Her response was: "I hope not."

"I can’t guarantee that, no," she continued.

The Phoenix system, initiated by the previous Conservative government in 2009, was meant to streamline the payroll of public servants and save more than $70-million annually. Already, the government has planned to spend $400-million trying to fix it, including hiring more staff and setting up satellite pay centres in Gatineau, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Shawinigan, to try to chip away at the pile of remaining cases. It cost $309.5 million to implement the system.

The initial promise from the department was to have the backlog of problematic pay cases resolved by Oct. 31, 2016.

As of Oct. 18, there were 265,000 cases of employee pay issues left to be resolved, and the department says more than half of public servants who get paid through the system are still experiencing "some form of pay issue."

Qualtrough couldn’t say when the system—created by IBM—will be paying public servants correctly and on time, though she anticipates the number of cases left to be triaged will go down in the New Year.

"I just feel horribly that we’re not able to pay our public servants promptly and accurately every two weeks, and it keeps me awake at night to tell you the truth," the minister said.

'There was really no choice'

Though the previous government got the ball rolling on the new pay program, the Liberal government has taken considerable heat from the opposition and the public service unions for making the call to forge ahead with its rollout, even though an independent consulting group’s report  found that concerns about the success of rollout were ignored.

Qualtrough said, when it came time for her government to make the call on whether to give the go-ahead, "there was really no choice," but refuted that they knowingly implemented a system that would cause so much suffering for thousands of federal workers.

"The choice wasn’t between the new system and an old system, the choice was between the new system and no system. We didn’t have pay compensation advisers, they had all been fired. The Conservatives had de-commissioned the old system… at that point the choice had been made. We had to keep going. We had to pay people," she said.

Qualtrough said the system as it is does have "bugs" and highlighted the complexity of customizing the software for the intricacies of federal pay, but said they’re working it out.

"It’s just taking too long," she said.