By Carla Howatt
Hundreds of thousands of dollars – $306,252.68, $429,577, $3,375,000, to be exact – these are the types of numbers you start hearing when you are digging into the issue of priority funding for Strathcona County Council.
First, what is priority funding? The fund, which was first established in 1999, is money that is available to each council member to spend. Some have described it as money used to deal with emergent issues within a ward.
Each councillor is allotted $31,250 per year. If they do not spend that amount in a year, the balance is carried over to the next year. A new councillor assumes the balance, if there is one, from the previous councillor. As of July 31, 2011, the balance in each of the ward accounts is as follows:
Linda Osinchuk, Mayor – $77,689
Vic Bidzinski, Ward 1 – $38,480
Roxanne Carr, Ward 2 – $48,603
Brian Botterill, Ward 3 – $64,453
Peter Wlodarczak, Ward 4 – $62,344
Jacquie Fenske, Ward 5 – $5,287
Linton Delainey, Ward 6 – $69,661
Bonnie Riddell, Ward 7 – $15,545
Jason Gariepy, Ward 8 - $47,514
From January 2011 to August 16, 2011, the nine council members have spent a total of $306,252 on priority funding. As of the end of July, they have a total “savings account” of $429,577 that they could potentially spend this year. Since its inception, there has been upwards of $3,375,000 made available to this fund.
You would be forgiven for thinking that with these kinds of numbers, there would be a clear outline, a policy even, of how and where the money is spent. You might also assume that the expenditures would be looked at closely to ensure accountability. Of course, you would be wrong.
The priority fund has never had a policy outlining how it should be spent. Yes, there is a process that must be followed to access the monies. First, a written request must be submitted to the councillor and if they feel it meets their own personal criteria, they take it to a council meeting where all the councillors must approve.
It is interesting to note that even though there is are no clearly outlined guideline, there has only been one rumoured time when a councillor’s request was denied. Council insists that the approval of priority funding requests is not a rubber stamp.
If you look at just this year alone, you will discover that municipal taxpayers have funded everything from playground equipment to music festivals to tractor pulls and fence painting. They even supported a conference in Red Deer.
With all this ambiguity around the type of things this money should cover, it is admirable that county council is in the process of developing a policy. But why has it taken 12 years?
Within the last year alone, this issue was raised more than nine times by the local media.
The media and the public have expressed concern about councils decision to give $45,000 to a special interest lobby group. Whether you agree with their issue or not, should taxpayers be funding them?
And what about the $29,327 that was spent this year alone supporting large, non-local charities? Charities like the Muscular Dystrophy Canada, the Alberta Cancer Foundation and a humanitarian project in Ecuador. These are, no doubt, worthwhile and valuable causes. But did the citizens of Strathcona County elect their officials to make charitable giving decisions for them? Are these decisions made based on councillors own charitable giving guidelines? Are these the same guidelines that all citizens in Strathcona County use? Or worse yet, are they made based on political motives?
With all of these questions being bantered about in the media and around coffee coolers, and with a policy in the works, one would think that council would be particularly sensitive to how their spending is perceived. Again, you would be wrong.
You see, council has this thing called a consent agenda. The way it works is that at the beginning of a council meeting, a councillor can request an agenda item be placed on the consent agenda. This means that the councillors agree upon the issue, no one has any questions and it will not be debated publicly. The consent agenda is often used for things such as setting a date for public hearings.
Guess what? Priority funding has been put on the consent agenda since May. It would have continued being placed on the consent agenda except that at the Aug. 16, 2011 council meeting, one lone councillor objected. The last time it was dealt with out in the open was April 26, 2011. Again, council denies that priority funding requests are rubber-stamped.
So amid questions being asked, concerns being expressed and a policy that has been 12 years in the works and a 3.5 per cent tax increase, Strathcona County Council appears to think it is spending as usual.