On the plus side – and there were few positive takeaways from Monday’s (Feb. 11) special meeting of council – the disbursement of almost a quarter-million dollars in community grants took less than 90 minutes.
And unlike previous years, council showed restraint in not exceeding this year’s budget target of $261,800 up for grabs.
In fact, it has a small reserve of $16,800 to be doled out at some unspecified time later in the year.
Was the process a model of fairness and efficiency?
Well, let’s hope the deliberations Monday afternoon do not become a template for the future.
It was less a cap-and-trade bit of bargaining as we suggested a few days ago and more a lightning round of Let’s Make A Deal.
Council protocol was abandoned in what was akin to a Saturday morning session at the auction house.
The proceedings launched on a rocky note with Mayor Joe Preston advising members this would be a transition year for grants, and his suggestion an undetermined amount of the pool of funds be held back for future distribution.
That suggestion met with opposition on several fronts, with Coun. Jim Herbert nailing it with his observation, “I’ve got a feeling this is not going to be a nice process.”
Both he and Coun. Jeff Kohler pushed for immediate decisions on which groups and individuals were to benefit from grant money.
“Organizations are looking to see how they will move forward (this year),” stressed Kohler.
He also reminded members, “We are not the United Way. We are not dealing with donated money. It’s taxpayer money.”
Coun. Mark Tinlin was also in the let’s-get-it-done-today camp and warned of what he called “grant creep,” a seemingly bottomless pit of cash up for grabs in recent years.
He also voiced what others have said in the past, the grants should be a one-of ask and not a yearly trip to the bank.
To accommodate that, Coun. Steve Peters proposed funding for the St. Thomas Elgin Public Art Centre, the Talbot Teen Centre (TTC), the St. Thomas Seniors’ Centre and St. Thomas Cemetery Company should be extricated from the grant process and perhaps be included in the city’s operating budget.
A logical move debated several times in previous grant deliberations.
“Aren’t we just moving money from one column to another in the budget?”
Council agreed in principle, however, the exact methodology was not buttoned down.
Peters’ notion these four organizations should be treated in the same fashion as any other city department expanded the scope of debate.
“I don’t think these four groups want the city managing their budgets,” suggested Coun. Joan Rymal. “I don’t see this as an operating item.”
There was no consensus on how long the quartet of organizations should continue to receive funding while avoiding the still non-existent grant procedure.
“I don’t want to give them a false sense of security,” said Coun. Kohler. “Make it (the exemption) for the term of council.”
Coun. Gary Clarke wanted a tighter rein with a yearly review.
Coun. Herbert was on the other side of the fence advising, “Let’s support them and not nickel-and-dime them every year.”
A keen observation from Coun. Tinlin with, “Aren’t we just moving money from one column to another in the budget?”
At this stage, the divvying up of funds delved into the realm of ridiculousness as all members played the equivalent of that old radio contest, high-low.
Should Group A receive $50,000 this year? ‘Too high,’ urged some participants.
‘Too low,’ begged others.
‘Do I hear $45,000,’ challenged the on-air host.
A farcical approach that left several councillors decidedly uncomfortable with the proceedings.
“Groups think we have a process in place.”
When the Wheel of Fortune ceased spinning, the art centre received $70,000, the TTC $60,000, the seniors’ centre $50,000 and St. Thomas Cemetery Company $55,000.
Additionally, the St. Thomas Seniors’ Picnic will benefit from $3,000, the Eat 2 Learn Program gets $5,000 and Sara Teare’s Light the Night undertaking receives $2,000.
The remaining 11 applicants received little more than lip service if even that.
You have to feel for these individuals and groups – all of them worthwhile and many volunteer-driven – who put time and resources into preparing a grant application only to get short shrift in a slapstick sideshow.
In hindsight, Coun. Clarke’s comment looms large.
“Groups think we have a process in place.”
Like the Maple Leafs of past, maybe next year.
For now, we settle for a game of grant Whack-A-Mole.
Doling out St. Thomas grant money: the city’s own cap-and-trade program?
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