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Grant program needs changes: watchdogs

Winnipeg councillors get $100,000 each to give this year to community groups; But do you know how — and where — all that money is being spent?

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Revelations that City of Winnipeg councillors have awarded a disproportionate sum of money from a small but popular grant program to a single group in the first three months of 2013 has sparked calls for a review of how the money is divvied out — or whether it should continue to be handed out at all.

Since January, councillors have individually endorsed $305,000 worth of community incentive grants (CIG) to the Punjab Cultural Centre being built at 1770 King Edward St. behind Red River College — about one-fifth of the $1.5 million of funding available for 2013 and $80,000 over council-approved limits, a Canstar Community News audit of spending has revealed.

The funding has found itself snagged in a legal limbo as city officials juggle whether or not the commitments need to head to city council for approval.

"There’s conflicting info from a few departments," said community services chair Coun. Scott Fielding (St. James-Brooklands).

"One is saying it is going back through council, another is saying it will go to an internal management committee. I don’t know if they have to have legal make a decision."

The CIG program was established in 1985 to provide one-time, limited grants up to $100,000 to non-profit sport and recreation groups building capital projects, such as community centres and arenas, at a time when the city could not afford to do so.

As the program’s budget has grown, councillors have loosened eligibility requirements to include projects such as the PCC. They’ve also boosted the program’s funding caps — from 25% of a project’s total cost up to 50%, and to a maximum of $225,000. Anything over and above these limits must be approved by city council.

Now that recent commitments to the Punjab Cultural Centre (PCC) are under review, councillors are unlikely to renege if and when they land on council’s agenda.

Even Amarjeet S. Warraich, president of the Manitoba Sikh Cultural and Seniors Centre (MSCSC), which is developing the project, is confident the money will be approved.

"We’re just waiting for it to go through," Warraich said. "We have to wait and follow the rules."

The $9.1-million redevelopment of the old Brooklands Collegiate is on pace for a July grand opening, Warraich said. The MSCSC is fundraising $1.2 million of its own cash for the centre, which includes storefronts, a restaurant, a daycare and seniors’ space. It will serve 20,000 South Asians throughout Winnipeg, Warriach said.

"We have established ourselves," he said, noting many are doctors and professors.

"For my kids, this is their first home. For me, it’s my second home. We need a place where youth and other generations can share their culture and heritage."

News that just one organization accounts for nearly 20% of this year’s CIG spending is just the latest frustration for the Norwood Lawn Bowling Club.

The club, based at Dakota Park in St. Vital, has been trying to get $10,000 to renovate its clubhouse since it was approved for funds in December 2011. Norwood, along with its umbrella organization, Bowls Manitoba, which is located next door, are preparing to host the Canadian National Lawn Bowling Championships in 2014.

Both clubs were also hoping to apply for funding to upgrade their fields in time for the event, expected to draw hundreds from across Canada.

"Everything’s on hold," said Beverly Shafirka, president of the lawn bowling club and a board member of Bowls Manitoba.

"We can’t get answers."

In January, Riel committee councillors, including Couns. Dan Vandal, Justin Swandel and Brian Mayes, approved $55,000 in CIG grants to the PCC. In March, they laid over Norwood’s application, for the ninth time, until June.

Shafirka, a St. Vital resident, said councillors should not be allowed to use CIG funds for projects outside the geographic area their community committee represents.

"They shouldn’t be spending money on (the PCC)," Shafirka said.

A redevelopment plan is rumoured to be in the works for Dakota Park, Shafirka noted. But, communication and consultation with the lawn bowling clubs has been scarce, she said. Even negotiations on renewing the club’s 25-year lease on the land, which expired January 2012, has been a struggle.

Since moving to the park in 1989, the clubs have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into its buildings and fields, Shafirka noted.

Community incentive grants are highly sought after — about 37 different groups have applied for a collective $1.4 million this year.

Each councillor has $100,000 to award this year through the capital budget, though some have unspent funds from other years.

Councillors have approved more than $870,000 to projects such as gym enhancements at Ecole LaVerendrye, field upgrades at Koskie Field for the Elmwood Giants Baseball Club, and a reverse osmosis water system for the West Kildonan Curling Club.

Fielding kicked off funding for the PCC, located in his ward, with a $40,000  grant in January. Only Old Kildonan Coun. Devi Sharma has awarded more, approving $50,000 in February. River Heights-Fort Garry Coun. John Orlikow gave $10,000 in February, and another $10,000 in March.

Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt was the only councillor to not give money, rescinding his $4,600 contribution in April after realizing he had over-committed his budget.

According to Fielding, councillors don’t track how much each other gives to groups that apply for CIGs across multiple committees. Chairs of the individual committees decide whether they want to add applications for projects outside their wards to the monthly agenda, he said.

"It’s a councillor’s discretion if they want to invest in areas outside their ward," he said.

St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes, who gave $20,000, said the PCC will have "benefits across the city," noting the Gurdwara Nanaksar and Hindu Society of Manitoba temples already serve a growing South Asian constituency in his ward.

Mayes deferred comment on the redevelopment of Dakota Park to St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel, whose ward includes the park. Mayes said his Riel committee counterparts often support projects in each other’s wards, from the St. Vital Museum to the Victoria Hospital.

Mayes doesn’t believe he is shortchanging community groups in his ward with his grant to the PCC.

"I still have money left," he said. "I don’t say yes to everybody."

Swandel did not return calls for comment. Requests to interview City of Winnipeg administrators were denied.

matt.preprost@canstarnews.com

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Grants a slush fund ‘used for politicking’: CTF

In its 2014-2018 capital forecast, the city expects to increase the community incentive grant budget 2% each year, reaching $1.732 million by 2018.

Colin Craig, prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said funding to cultural projects such as the PCC should be citizen powered not politically driven. The CIG program is "one of those pools of money sometimes used for politicking," said Craig.

"Ideally, these types of things would be handled through more of an independent process," he said.

Governments should be reducing the dollars it hands out to arts and cultural projects and putting that money back into taxpayers’ wallets, Craig said.

"That way, citizens get to decide what the culture of a community is rather than bureaucrats and politicians," he said.

"Some people say that’s anti-arts. It’s pro-citizen. When you leave money in the public’s hand in the first place, they know what to do with it. Some people may decide to cut a bigger cheque than what comes off their property taxes (for grants)," said Craig.

Program ‘dysfunctional’: former council candidate

Fred Morris, who ran for city councillor in St. James-Brooklands in 2010, said the program is becoming increasingly "dysfunctional."

As the city faces a crippling infrastructure deficit — estimated by Mayor Sam Katz to surpass $7 billion by 2018 — it must review whether or not it can continue giving out the grants when it can’t maintain its own facilities, said Morris.

Morris pointed to the Sherbrook Pool in the West End, shuttered since November after engineers found the pillars supporting its roof were badly eroded.

"This is happening at the same time the city is arguing they don’t have money to keep their facilities open and are raising property taxes," Morris said.

"In a lot of ways, it doesn’t make sense."

At the very least, groups applying for grants should only be able to lobby a single committee, not the whole city, to ensure fair access across the board, Morris added.

"We’re giving too much to one group with all the other needs we have," said Morris.

"We really have to get a public debate going," he said.

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Spending 2013

Click to see a tally of the projects and money your city councillors have awarded community incentive grants to in 2013:

- ASSINIBOIA (Fielding, Havixbeck, Nordman)

- CITY CENTRE (Gerbasi, Orlikow, Smith)

- EAST KILDONAN-TRANSCONA (Browaty, Steen, Wyatt)

- LORD SELKIRK-WEST KILDONAN (Eadie, Pagtakhan, Sharma)

- RIEL (Mayes, Swandel, Vandal)

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