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Where to go for free money

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If you're looking for free money, mark your calendar for mid-March. To collect your cash, it helps to have control of a non-profit group. You'll also need to be willing to say a few words when you belly up to the trough.

By trough, I mean a meeting of the city budget process. Since city hall hasn't had any formal procedure to review grants for more than a decade, most requests for new grant funding are now "referred to the budget process."

In practice, this means you should book yourself to speak at a special meeting of the mayor's cabinet, usually held a week before council votes on the budget. A day or so later, politicians will reappear and mysteriously recommend adding thousands -- or even hundreds of thousands -- in grants and other expenditures to the budget.

How does the city pay for this new spending? The usual answer in the budget resolution is a dull phrase: "offset by corporate accounts." That's insider-speak for "dip into one of the city's hidden slush funds." In past years, the top-ups were expensive enough that on the initiative of former councillor Mike O'Shaughnessy, the budget team actually held back cash in anticipation of these amendments. It's unclear if this thoughtful practice is still observed.

This year, the trough meeting added $50,000 in new money for the Winnipeg Arts Council and $7,500 for the Manitoba Ahbee festival, among others. In prior years, grants were added for one-time special events and to long-standing community groups. In a bizarre case in 2008, out of nowhere, the mayor's cabinet recommended awarding "up to $500,000" to set up an endowment for Graffiti Art Programming Inc.

To be fair, most groups who turn up at the trough meeting probably do good things with any money that spills their way. For example, Heritage Winnipeg does important work sometimes. In a typical year, their routine visit to the trough meeting earns them a grant hike of $5,000 or less.

The recipients might deserve it. They might not. They might spend it wisely. They might not. The trouble is, nobody really has a formal clue either way. There's no real oversight to gauge the stated purpose of each grant or its outcome, and no real rules to govern who's allowed to ask, or how. No one points out that in the absence of a real process, groups that might be more deserving don't show up, so they're never considered in the rush to close out the budget.

One obvious path for reform: Delegate the task of parcelling out grants to an existing committee of council (the nearly moribund finance committee is one possibility). Assign a hard annual cap on how much is awarded, and adopt due diligence rules for applicants. Hear applications for 2013 grants in September of 2012, instead of at the last minute in March 2013. Simple.

In 2007, Free Press staff correctly reported there were at least two internal efforts to reform grants spending, one of them along those lines. But little actually changed. It's easy to guess why. The first challenge is power. Delegating authority to ordinary councillors to recommend grants is not a popular idea for those councillors who feel more extraordinary. The second challenge is sloth: Genuine due diligence is often tedious. A transparent grant process would be time-consuming work for a council that's not very keen on consuming time.

By way of contrast, consider the fate of a recent minister of citizenship and immigration in Premier Dalton McGuinty's government in Ontario. An audit revealed the minister doled out $32 million in grants to cultural organizations from 2005-07, often with little or no pretense of due diligence. Apparently, his goal was to make sure no money was left unspent in his budget at year-end (and Ontario wonders why its debt is out of control). One cultural group received $1 million when it had only asked for $150,000. After the audit was released, the minister resigned.

At Queen's Park, doling out grants without a formal process was a mistake worthy of an audit and a resignation. Here in Winnipeg, it's just how we get things done. And by coincidence, in his state of the city speech Friday, Mayor Sam Katz said Winnipeg needs "a more modern way to get things done at city hall."

A fair point, that. And replacing the annual trough meeting with a transparent, accountable grants process might be a good way to start making that point.

Brian F. Kelcey served as a political adviser in the mayor's office. He blogs at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2012 A16

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