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Council votes to allow COVID-19 funds for community, business supports

Curling club to get $50K of COVID-19 funds to help offset costs for major refrigeration upgrade

The city's COVID-19 fund was reaffirmed for this year with an expanded focus on business and community supports.

On March 15, St. Albert council voted to allow chief administrative officer Kevin Scoble to use up to $1 million from the stabilization reserve to cover COVID-19-related expenses, including costs for organizational, community and business supports. That could include lease waivers during closures and business recovery grants, according to the agenda backgrounder. Funds could also be used to support a future vaccination program.

Before the meeting, the city had yet to pull from the $2.4 million allocated last year to respond to COVID-19 impacts because of financial management decisions made so far.

Mayor Cathy Heron took the recommendation off council's consent agenda because she thought decisions around how the $2.4 million would be used “deserved a conversation by this council." She said she wanted to make sure councillors were comfortable giving Scoble broad authority over the fund.

Coun. Sheena Hughes brought forward three amendments to the motion. The first cut down the amount allocated for use from $2.4 million to $1 million. It also requested the removal of references to community and business supports. The third amendment was to give the St. Albert Curling Club a $50,000 grant from the fund after council heard a presentation from the group.

With the second motion, Hughes said she was concerned the the wording could open up a floodgate of requests for funding from groups in need, when the city's intent was to allocate funds to organizations with ties to the city.

Coun. Ken MacKay said the city's COVID-19 Recovery Task Force is tasked with bringing forward recommendations to council to help businesses and non-profits, and shared concerns about the language being too vague. 

Coun. Natalie Joly put forward an amendment to bring the language back in, saying she felt confident in the vetting process the city has in place to decide which requests need to come to council, and which do not.

"It's not going to be a free for all, it's for organizations that are connected to the municipality through leases (and) service agreements," Joly said.

Joly's motion passed in a 4-3 vote, with councillors Hughes, MacKay and Ray Watkins against. 

Curling club gets $50K

Helping the curling club offset $50,000 from a required ammonia refrigeration upgrade marks the first time the city has tapped into funds allocated for COVID-19 response.

Earlier in the meeting, city council heard a presentation from the St. Albert Curling Club on financial challenges faced in the last year. Dale Throndson, club president, said unexpected costs from an expensive upgrade to their refrigeration system drained the club's savings account.

The upgrade was required throughout the province to better prevent and detect ammonia leaks, an issue put into the spotlight after a fatal incident in Fernie, B.C., in 2017. The project started last summer and was recently completed, but not without significant cost.

"The timing of the ammonia project alongside a global pandemic has been difficult to say the least," Throndson told council. 

To finance the project at the city-owned facility, the club received an $80,000 grant from the province along with $90,789 from the city's community capital program grant. The project ended up costing $97,000 more than expected, with costs totalling $318,546, he explained. The club then tapped into its savings account to cover the remaining $147,757.

That was combined with impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, where all incoming revenue to the club stopped but they still had to pay operating and capital expenses.

The club is currently in the process of refunding up to $143,000 in fees for the cancelled season, with members donating $35,000 of fees to help the club reopen in the fall. The closure had also lost $56,000 from rentals, $25,000 in lounge revenue and two years worth of rental revenue from the International Children's Festival. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the club tried to make up for these costs by rolling back wages for full-time staff and laying off part-time staff while applying for any additional provincial and federal grants. They also held 50/50 fundraisers to try and generate some income. Still, the club's savings account is projected to have $163,314 next month, down from $451,801 a year ago.

Given the upgrade was mandated by the city, Hughes moved a motion to give the curling club a $50,000 grant from the $1-million COVID-19 fund to help offset some of those costs. The motion passed in a 6-1 vote, with Joly against. 

Throndson said the grant will help the club pay to reopen the facility this fall, should restrictions allow. 

"The additional funding is so appreciated at a time where the ammonia project became a lot more expensive than anyone had anticipated," he said in an interview. "It's really great that the city recognized that, and is assisting our club by helping out with some of the cost."

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