Groups think we have a process in place: Sorting out the community grants boondoggle in St. Thomas


The item on Monday’s reference committee agenda notes, “The members will discuss the council grants process.”
Trouble is, this council and previous editions have not had a clearly defined method of distributing funding to community groups and organizations.
In particular, the last two rounds of funds disbursement have been an embarrassing undertaking, to put it mildly.
In the past, this has been a totally unstructured affair with little in the way of guidelines to follow.
The overarching target – seldom adhered to – has been one-half per cent of the general tax levy or in the $250,000 range.
Last year’s determination of who gets what was likened in this corner to a “Saturday morning session at the auction house.”
The best takeaway was Coun. Gary Clarke’s observation, “Groups think we have a process in place.”

The 2019 handout, however, was a model of efficiency compared to this year’s debacle.
At the Dec. 20 meeting, council agreed to continue funding four groups at the same amount as in 2019 plus a 2.4 per cent increase to match the proposed municipal property tax hike.
In 2019, the St. Thomas Elgin Public Art Centre received $70,000, the Talbot Teen Centre $60,000, the St. Thomas Seniors’ Centre $50,000 and St. Thomas Cemetery Company $55,000.
About $35,000 remaining in the pot ostensibly was for funding requests that will come before council throughout the year.
Trouble is, Mayor Joe Preston and city manager Wendell Graves pushed for using that money to pay a consultant to review city user fees.
So, a month later when organizers of the annual Senior’s Day in the Park requested a $2,500 grant to offset costs of the event, council had to deny the request.
This uncomfortable turn of events forced Preston to plead, “Let’s get to the grant process at reference committee sooner rather than later.”
Again, as if we had a process.
Well, that reference committee meeting is Monday.
Hopefully, council aims for less gong show in favour of a more clearly defined process.
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At Monday’s (March 2) meeting, council will be asked to endorse the St. Thomas Transit Strategic Plan which is a blueprint for transit service and improvements in the city over the next 10 years.
There are numerous recommendations in several categories. You can read the full strategic plan here.St. Thomas Transit new routes
Under operations, there is a revised route structure (see map) including areas where demand response transit will come into play either this year or next.
Under technology, it is recommended the fare collection system be modernized to accept credit and debit cards or smartphones.
Looking at fares, the city should extend the subsidized social services pass for clients seeking employment and develop a post-secondary institution pass with Fanshawe College.
When it comes to marketing, there should be “consistent and creative branding, including unification with the City of St. Thomas brand,” according to the report.
And, the transit hub at the Smart Centre needs to be upgraded.St. Thomas Transit electric buses

With regard to the transit fleet, the time has come to purchase electric buses.
Implementation dates for the recommendations vary from later this year through to 2024 and they are contingent on federal funding.
The report to council from Matthew Vriens, manager of roads and transportation, updates the funding situation.
“The city completed it’s Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) Public Transit Stream application in June 2019.
“In August 2019 the provincial government announced their commitment of this funding stream while we await the federal portion.”
A federal announcement is expected this spring.
As for a proposal to implement a three-year pilot project for regional transit service to Aylmer, Port Stanley and London, the city is waiting to hear if its funding request has been endorsed by the province.
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What a difference a distance of 10 miles down Hwy. 3 can make.
While Peter Ostojic of Walter Ostojic and Sons has repeatedly questioned why the St. Thomas is undertaking the construction of affordable housing units such as Phase 1 of the city’s social services and housing hub recently opened at 230 Talbot Street.
The argument put forth by Peter Ostojic last month in this space was, “If the joint goal of our community is to provide as much affordable housing for people (as possible), it is important that the private sector be the primary delivery agent.”
Meantime, 10 miles east in Aylmer, town council actually approached the Ostojics to determine their interest in constructing a second affordable housing unit on Brown Street.
It would be a twin of the existing 23-unit building built by the Ostojics about eight years ago.

“It’s been really nice to work with the Town of Aylmer and the County of Elgin. We’re just waiting to hear back from the province.”

In a conversation this week, Ostojic said “I believe Aylmer contacted us about seven or eight months ago saying are you still interested in if we can get this off the ground. And we said ‘absolutely we’re interested.'”
He added, “We’ve got the lot sitting there and it’s serviced and when we built the building on Brown Street, we actually had to build Brown Street. So, we don’t have to do anything now, it’s all ready to go.
“We’ve run the hydro there, we’ve run the servicing into the lot, so it’s just a matter of taking out a permit and digging a hole. All the planning has been done, all the zoning is done.”
So when town staff contacted the Ostojics, “we said ‘Yeah, we’re absolutely interested, is there any involvement from the province.’ And they said let us see what we can do.
And so the Town of Aylmer is letting “the private sector be the primary delivery agent.”
“It’s been really nice to work with the Town of Aylmer and the County of Elgin,” advised Ostojic. “We’re just waiting to hear back from the province.
“It’s nice to hear our MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London supports it. If that funding was to come through, we could start right away.”
In the meantime St. Thomas has Phase 2 of the social services and housing hub at 230 Talbot Street on hold while having to go to Plan B for the childcare centre that would have been housed in that second phase.
It will now be located on the St. Catharine Street parking lot, across from the former Colin McGregor Justice Building.
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In light of the fact both Elgin county and St. Thomas have not yet committed to providing future capital grants to support a palliative care hospice, the Municipality of Central Elgin has stepped into the picture in a sort of mediator role.
Deputy clerk Dianne Wilson has sent a letter to members of county and city councils urging both parties “to maintain continuing dialogue with the hospice steering committee to look for creative financial and other in-kind measures to support the development of an Elgin hospice.”
The letter, endorsed by Central Elgin council, goes on to urge the city and county to “continue to explore available sources of funding for the hospice, particularly when current funding commitments to St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital are met in the near future, with the objective that in the future Elgin county will not be the lone southwestern Ontario county without a hospice.”
Well done on the part of council members in Central Elgin. Nothing like a little prod to get things moving.
The letter should serve as a point of reference at Tuesday’s (March 3) meeting with the city, county and St. Joseph’s Health Care Society to discuss financing options for the hospice.
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As of Monday, the start time for council meetings has been moved up to 6 p.m. from the previous 7 p.m. kick-off.
Reference committee meetings, which had a floating start time in the past, will now follow the scheduled council meeting with a projected 6:45 p.m. start.
This allows time for extended debate instead of having to cut short any discussion due to the 7 p.m. start of council meetings.

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