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Millions in city grants, but accountability queried

Mar 04 2012

Victoria councillors dipped their toes into the murky and uncertain political waters of how city grants are divvied out this week, but ultimately stepped back before taking the plunge.

Asked by council three years ago to examine grant policies, city staff are now proposing the city try to bring some consistency and accountability to how millions of dollars in city grants - funding everything from crossing guards to affordable housing - are allocated.

There's no question the city is generous in how it hands out your tax dollars. Last year, it budgeted $2.2 million in grants and in-kind contributions - about $26.80 for every man, woman and child living here, according to a report prepared by its sustainability department. (Among similar municipalities in B.C., Victoria ranks third in per capita grant spending, behind Kamloops and Prince George.)

The report notes that $2.2 million can be just a starting point. For example, the city also gave $1.1 million in unbudgeted capital housing grants last year, bringing the actual spending to $3.3 million, or $39.86 a head. There are also myriad other unplanned grant requests for major festivals and sporting events.

The city also kicks in about $1.8 million to support the arts through its CRD requisition: $821,995 in arts grants; $750,000 for the McPherson Theatre and $239,379 for the Royal Theatre.

Coun. Geoff Young said it is evident the city has to do something about how much it gives away in grants.

"Our tax increases have been exceeding the rate of inflation for a number of years," said Young, adding that he heard concerns about tax increases from both residents and businesses during the election.

"I think it is something we just have to address," said Young in an interview. "I know it is difficult because all of those grants are significant to the people who receive them."

The staff report points out there is no standardized policy determining what groups qualify for grants and why; what they have to do to receive the money; or whether the money is well spent. In fact, there are 19 grant different programs that are administered independently in five different departments.

City staff are recommending a new policy to try to get a better grip on the process.

Included would be designation of a grants administrator and policy procedures covering such items as common eligibility criteria; a standard three-year funding cycle; moving grants to a competitive process and eliminating direct awards; development of a performance-monitoring framework; and an program evaluation for all grant programs.

That's where it gets sticky for the politicians.

"Every time we've tried to go through this is the past, you set up a competitive system and the people who have been getting grants that have sustained their organizations for years, suddenly feel threatened," said Coun. Chris Coleman.

"That may or not be fair, but the reality is, we give an awful lot of money away and we can't afford to carry on at the rate we've been going because, as [Young] pointed out, we're not very good at cutting back on some things. All we do is expand the pot," Coleman said.

Young acknowledged that bringing order to the process through new policy would be helpful, but said that's not the real issue council has to come to grips with.

"At some point, you have to write the letter that says: 'We're sorry we're not giving you the money this year,' or 'We're reducing your grant,' or 'We're giving you only half of what you wanted,' " Young said.

"There's no getting away from the fact that you have to make those decisions and council has to be prepared to make those decisions."

Councillors sent the staff proposal back for more work, asking specifically for more information about how the application process would work.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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