Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

For non-profits, pot of gold exists at city hall

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While no one will mistake the Red River Valley for the Coast Mountains of southwestern Yukon, St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes has done his best to spark a gold rush right here in Winnipeg.

On Thursday, city council's governance committee will consider his request to spend $28,000 of his ward allowance on Save Our Seine, a volunteer group that maintains trails and tries to preserve forests and riparian zones along the Seine River.

If the grant gets approved, and there's no reason to expect otherwise, all 14 other city councillors should prepare for an influx of calls and emails from other small non-profit organizations in desperate need of funding.

The $28,000 Mayes wants to give to Save Our Seine will mark the first large ward-allowance grant since city council voted last month to allow all 15 councillors to increase their discretionary spending by $40,000 this year.

Councillors may spend this cash in a variety of ways, including salaries for executive assistants, mailouts to constituents, new office furniture or grants to community groups. If any of the latter exceed $5,000, they must be put before council's governance committee, which has the power to reject any grant it considers inappropriate.

Mayes, who promised to fund Save Our Seine when he ran for office in a 2011 byelection, is hardly making a surprise move by choosing to fund the organization, which has had no executive director for more than a year. The grant also isn't going to curry favour with any powerful interests, given the historical enmity between Save Our Seine and real-estate developer Ladco, which used to be at odds over the Royalwood development.

Yet by dispensing of most of his extra spending allowance in a single grant, Mayes is setting up his council colleagues for a barrage of other funding requests.

"That will be their problem to deal with, I guess," Mayes said Tuesday, acknowledging the larger ward allowance opens up the floodgates for what are known as "asks" in the fundraising world.

"This was the risk. (Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny) Gerbasi identified this: We may get $400,000 worth of requests when we have $40,000 worth of room," Mayes continued. "If some people want to spend it all on community groups, that's up to them. I wasn't worried about that. I just wanted to deal with this as quickly as I could."

Mayes was one of the city councillors who supported the additional spending during January's debate on the city's operating budget. The irony is phones will now be ringing in the offices of councillors such as Gerbasi and Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck, who didn't support the increase.

Intentionally or otherwise, the office of every city councillor has been transformed into a public funding agency with a theoretical spending limit of $114,000. And the discretionary nature of the spending, governance-committee oversight notwithstanding, only increases the opportunity for patronage and reduces the transparency surrounding funding decisions.

The largest discretionary spending power lies within the mayor's office, which has the power to spend $500,000 a year on "civic initiatives" and also tap other pots of money. In 2006, a Katz decision to spend $300,000 on St. Boniface theatre Cercle Molière sparked accusations the mayor was trying to curry enough favour in the francophone ward to re-elect Franco Magnifico, who nonetheless lost to Coun. Dan Vandal.

In 2012, Katz teamed up with former rival Vandal to spend $100,000 a year over three years on a Salvation Army facility in Island Lakes.

The mayor also used discretionary-spending powers to fund a Southdale community centre considered a funding priority by the provincial government, but all but ineligible for city recreation funds.

The mayor, however, has a staff to consider funding requests and more importantly, come up with diplomatic ways to reject them. Councillors have fewer people at their disposal to run interference on their behalf.

What remains to be seen is whether those who voted for the extra cash will regret the move in the long run. By getting out early, Mayes has announced his cupboard is all but bare -- and rung a dinner bell outside his colleagues' offices.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2013 B1

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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