City councillors have tossed a hot potato to the city’s auditor, tasking him with the job of evaluating a new policy governing ward funds.
Technically known as Healthy Communities Initiatives funds, the new rules dictate how each councillor can spend the $50,000 a year they receive for projects in their ward. Councillors delayed adopting the new rules until Auditor General Brian Bigger has a chance to review them.
Ward 3 Coun. Claude Berthiaume made the suggestion, because of the controversy the funds have generated in the media and in the public.
“This is very contentious,” Berthiaume said. “I wonder if we could get input from the auditor general before we pass this motion, just to have a second look.”
In an interview after the July 10 finance committee meeting, Bigger said he’s been directed to report back to council at the next finance committee meeting in August.
“It will be,” Bigger replied, when asked if he’ll have enough time to complete his work before the Aug. 14 meeting.
Under the new policy, allowable expenses for ward funds are broken down into four categories: donations to community groups; community event expenses; gifts and promotion for community events and groups; and, capital expenditures related to municipal facilities, such as neighbourhood parks.
The funds, which total $600,000 a year, are unique to Sudbury.
Lorella Hayes, the city’s chief financial officer, told councillors that three of the four eligible expenses are usually covered in councillors’ overall budget,which pays for such items as expenses, salaries and benefits. This year it totals about $1 million for all councillors.
The fourth category, the one for capital projects, doesn’t exist in any other Ontario municipality. The only comparable example she could find was in Nova Scotia.
“Halifax also has a fund similar to the capital end of the HCI funds,” Hayes said. “The other expenses come out of the council budget.”
The new policy also limits donations to community groups to $1,000 a year. To exceed that amount, councillors must get approval of the finance committee.
All funding applications must be accompanied by a formal request from the group involved, which must detail who the group is and exactly how the money will be spent.
Donations to individuals are prohibited, as are advances or loans to any group, without the approval of the finance committee. Any unspent money leftover at the end of the year can be carried over to the following year.
There are several things councillors can’t spend the money on, including any personal expenses, election-rated costs, political contributions, fines, ticket purchases and donations to groups outside of Greater Sudbury.
As part of the new policy, councillors directed staff to post all ward fund expenses, as well as expenses in the mayor’s office, on the city’s website every four months.
They went a step further at the suggestion of Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyne Landry-Altmann, agreeing to post details of all the money spent since the beginning of the current council’s term in December 2010.
Several councillors praised the funds, which have come under attack because, among other reasons, no other municipality gives their politicians access money for use only in their wards.
The money has often been used to leverage funding from the provincial and federal governments, they said. Landry-Altmann cited a project in her ward where $10,000 in ward funds allowed a group in her ward to access $125,000 in funding from other levels of government.
“We had three days to leverage that money to access that grant,” she said. “I needed to be able to do that at the last minute. That’s why the HCI funds are so important. And it’s important people understand that.”
Ward 1 Coun. Joe Cimino criticized the way the media has reported on the HCI funds, saying that the public has a skewered view of them as a result.
“It’s kind of discouraging. It’s kind of disheartening,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that some … have used this as a way to attack council, and attack councillors' integrity. I don’t like wearing a target on my back.
“We all work for the betterment of this community — council does, staff does, the mayor does. This is something good for our community that some people, unfortunately have used as a way to attack council.”
He said when he explains to people how the funds actually work – as he did at the Italian Festival last weekend -- they change their minds about them. Landry-Altmann added that she only hears praise of the funds in her ward.
“There has been absolutely no criticism in Ward 12 of the HCI funds,” she said. “We’re making dreams come true.”
The most prominent attacks of the funds have come from the Greater Sudbury Tax Payer’s Association, who had members in attendance at the July 10 meeting. The group, which has ties to Mayor Marianne Matichuk, welcomed the decision to refer the policy to the auditor general.
“It’s been something we’ve been suggesting for a long time,” Dan Melanson, who heads the group, said.
Melanson said he “would fall over dead” if Bigger gave the HCI funds his stamp of approval.
While it’s fine that councillors are able to use the funds to leverage money from upper levels of government, Melanson argued that it’s a small part of what the funds are used for.
“You can’t just say that they were able to leverage money for a park over here, and that’s why they funds should continue. It doesn’t work that way.
“If it’s such a great idea, who else is doing it? They had to go all the way to Halifax to find one example?”
He said the attempt to put the funds into an expense bylaw is “putting lipstick on a pig. It doesn’t work.”
He said no matter how you look at it, these funds aren’t expenses, they’re grants. And he’s opposed to giving city councillors the power to give grants to their constituents.
“And the Municipal Act clearly states that if you’re going to give grants to someone, it has to be approved by a quorum of council. Not by individual councillors. And as long as they’re doing that, they haven’t changed a thing.”
Posted by Arron Pickard