Continued erosion of municipal funding to some of St. Albert’s non-profits will ultimately hurt the city’s ongoing efforts to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, if these organizations struggle to pay their expenses.
St. Albert’s outside agency grant program – the main grant it gives to a variety of non-profit organizations such as the St. Albert Food Bank, the Housing Society and the Visual Arts Studio Association to help offset the costs of their operations – has undergone a radical transformation in recent years, establishing a funding cap and allowing more organizations to apply for funding, which had the effect of drastically cutting funding to others. This council’s approach to that program, as well as other grant programs for non-profits such as FCSS and community capital grants, has served to muddy the waters by creating a lack of certainty for organizations that often operate on shoestring budgets.
This month, councillors voted down a recommendation from one of their own council committees, the Community Living Standing Committee, to increase the pot of money available to non-profits by $80,000. This would have topped up the outside agency grant program from $594,738 to $674,036.
This week, councillors also agreed to arbitrarily cut back the recommended capital funding to the non-profit gymnastics club, Dynamyx, from $94,815 to $65,000. The $94,815 was a figure recommended by the community services advisory committee. That extra $30,000 won’t even be allocated this year, despite the grant program being overwhelmed with asks from community groups – it will roll over into next year’s capital funding pot instead.
Councillors initially voted to reduce Dynamyx’s funding at committee last week, a decision that has since been ratified by council. During that committee meeting, Mayor Cathy Heron and Coun. Sheena Hughes gave the dubious excuse that they didn’t like the idea of one organization getting so much money, since the gym club’s new facility isn’t open to the public free of charge – nevermind that Dynamyx had checked all the eligibility boxes for the grant. As Coun. Ken MacKay said, ‘… This is the way the current system is. I just don’t think it’s fair to the applicant.'
MacKay is right about the unfairness of this decision. If this council wants to move the goalposts on grant funding, it should make a formal decision to change the city’s grant policies instead of making impromptu decisions against the recommendations of its committees.
As for council’s refusal to increase the outside agency grant program, this council is fully aware of the deep cuts some non-profits have endured due to changes in how this program is funded. Councillors gave shortsighted reasoning that the pandemic means this isn’t the right time to increase funding to organizations that serve St. Albert’s most vulnerable populations. This reasoning fails to acknowledge that these non-profits play an integral part in supporting residents through the pandemic and in aiding St. Albert’s post-COVID recovery.
Only one councillor, Coun. Jacquie Hansen, appeared to acknowledge the importance of investing in these organizations at such a crucial time.
If the city’s goal is to starve non-profits of funding, thereby depriving St. Albertans of their full services, it is certainly well on its way to succeeding. Additionally, the continued lack of consistency in how council applies its grant policies, as evidenced by the Dynamyx decision, makes it impossible for non-profits to properly plan their budgets.
Non-profits stretch public dollars as far as possible in order to help improve the quality of life for residents. In February 2019, attendees at the St. Albert and District Chamber of Commerce's economic outlook lunch heard National Bank Financial investment adviser Angus Watt preach about the importance of the non-profit sector. Consequences of a weakened non-profit sector are far-reaching both economically and socially. It’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure these organizations remain healthy. It’s money well-spent.