Level playing field sought for City of Victoria grants

City council is tightening its belt and wants more accountability in its non-profit grants program. Get ready for a shakeup.

Bill Jewett jumps to avoid a shot during a floor hockey game at the Victoria Cool Aid Society’s Downtown Activity Centre on Pandora Avenue. The centre has been denied a recreation grant by the city.

Decked out in a Sidney Crosby jersey, Bill Jewett navigates the small gym with a slight limp.

Despite having a cast cut off his ankle earlier that day, he is warming up for a game of floor hockey on Tuesday after lunch.

“My girlfriend thinks I’m crazy,” says Jewett, giving the woman watching from the sidelines a broad smile. She laughs.

Floor hockey is one of the activities going on inside the Downtown Community Centre on Pandora Avenue, run by the Cool Aid Society.

Last year, the centre doubled its hours and introduced several new programs. Many serve the social agency’s more traditional clientele, such as a voicemail service to help people find jobs.

“It’s a place where people can get respite from other more street-entrenched environments, but we also have a huge mix of people here,” said centre co-ordinator Donna McKenna.

Other program descriptions read more like the guide put out by any community centre, such as yoga, a drumming circle and a knitting group.

Despite its evolving mandate, the activity centre has been denied a community centre recreation grant of $44,729 from the City of Victoria for the second year in a row.

The city gives the full grant to seven other community centres, and a partial grant to three seniors’ centres.

The reason for the discrepancy is simple.

“Current policy doesn’t allow them to be brought on at the expense of other centres,” said Teri Askham, Victoria’s manager of culture, sports and neighbourhoods.

It’s the type of inequity that city council hopes to address with a new policy aimed at streamline how grants are allocated, monitored and evaluated. Called the civic investment review, the proposal promises to shake up the status quo.

The idea is to add a part-time grant administrator to oversee a process which saw five city departments allocate 122 grants tallying $2.5 million in 2011.

Not included are permissive tax exemptions – yet another Pandora’s box to be tackled separately later this year.

It’s about “getting our house in order,” said Roy Brooke, Victoria’s sustainability director.

The problem is that council makes granting decisions in isolation, without any way to determine whether grant programs are funded appropriately, or if they’re in line with city goals.

Brooke proposes to open grants to a competitive process. It will ensure worthy organizations have a chance to receive a slice of the pie, and that those not meeting well-defined criteria don’t get grants renewals.

Under the current system the city gives nine economic development grants by direct award to groups such as the Greater Victoria Film Commission and the Vancouver Island Advanced Technology Centre.

“There is no other way for another agency to apply for that money,” said Kimberly Stratford, with the sustainability department.

“The direct award process keeps certain agencies in almost a dependency on our money.”

The goal is to wean some organizations off city money.

More than just accountability, however, the policy will give council the framework it needs to reduce its grants program, should it choose to do so.

And there’s a clear desire by some on council to make cuts.

At a time when the city is cutting many of its discretionary capital programs, such as parks and pathways, grants are a possible next step.

“The tough decisions are going to have to be made at this table, and so far, I haven’t seen them,” Young said.

A previous attempt to overhaul the process crumbled for just this reason.

Coun. Chris Coleman agreed with the need for competitive bids. But, he said, “People will see their organizations evaporate … There is going to be some pain.”

Unfortunately, said Mayor Dean Fortin, “This is all going to be political … We have not been able to pick winners and losers. It’s going to take courage.”

Council called the policy laudable, but requested more information.

In the meantime, what to do for the Downtown Activity Centre split council.

Some favoured awarding it a $10,000 pot of unallocated grant dollars for a second year. Fortin, however, disagreed, citing competing demands for the cash.

rholmen@vicnews.com

Did you know?

• Victoria gives away $60 per capita in grants and tax exemptions.

By comparison, Sidney gives about $37; Nanaimo $28; Saanich $20; Oak Bay $12 and Esquimalt $8.

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