Who should get city funding? Should those in receipt of city funding be allowed freedom of speech?
A recurring feature of the budget process is the line-up of community groups in search of funding to assist them with providing their specialty services. Wednesday’s budget hearing was no different, although the queue seemed to be a bit shorter this year.
My guess is that some had been discouraged by the talk of a tax freeze.
Some familiar faces were back, in particular representatives from Community Living London and Pillar.
Community Living London (CLC) has been lobbying City Council for a subsidized bus pass for persons with intellectual disabilities, most of whose incomes are below the poverty line. At present seniors, visually impaired persons, and persons on OW are eligible for subsidies. Persons with mobility impairments may be eligible for Paratransit. There is no subsidy for persons with other disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, most of whom have an ODSP income of less than $12,000 per year. To buy a monthly bus pass costs them $81 per month, or nearly 10% of their income.
Last year, the pitch was for subsidies based on income regardless of disability. At that time, I discussed the issue on Have bus pass, will travel. In the end, there were insufficient votes at the 2010 Budget debates to make any progress on this issue although staff were asked to look at the implications. How many people would be likely to use a subsidized bus pass? What if everybody who was eligible for a subsidy decided to ride the bus? What would that cost? And if we ran out of money and denied some people a pass, what would the legal implications be? What do they do in other cities?
It seems that the answers to those questions have not been made available to the current Council which means we are back where we started. This year, CLC has returned to their original request of subsidies for persons on ODSP. While the representatives did not specify a dollar amount for their request, they pointed out that other Ontario municipalities have subsidized passes ranging in price from $30 to $59.50 compared to our current $81 per month.
When asked by Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson if they would be happy with a subsidy of $1 per ride (the full fare is $2.75), CLC representative Jim Hewitt replied that they would be happy with that but he didn’t think the City could afford it. Henderson suggested that what he had in mind was some type of identification for the individual that s/he could show which would entitle him or her to a reduced fare. But what those who would be eligible for the subsidy really want is a bus pass that is affordable, not to carry a special identification card. “We want a process that is fair to everyone. We want to be equal,” was the response.
A particularly poignant presentation was made by Paula Moore, co-chair of New Vision Advocates. Like seniors and persons on OW, she pointed out, “we are also on a fixed monthly income. I am unable to drive. The bus is the only way I can get to work, and to doctors’ appointments, to do volunteer work, to do shopping. I have rent to pay and other expenses, and sometimes I have to give up groceries to buy my bus pass. I need it to get to work every day. We should have equal rights to citizenship and involvement in the community.”
Mayor Fontana was sympathetic. “I don’t ever want you to give up food to get a bus pass,” he said, reiterating his commitment at the Mayor’s breakfast that nobody would be left behind. “I don’t know how people can live on $580 or even $1000.”
Nevertheless, it will be hard to provide the subsidy requested and at the same time reduce the budget allocation to the London Transit Commission in order to meet the promised tax freeze.
Pillar Nonprofit Network has also, for all the years I was on Council, requested support for its work educating and assisting other nonprofits in the City. I would describe Pillar as the mother of all nonprofits. Under the leadership of executive director Michele Baldwin, its membership has grown from 100 nonprofit organizations in 2007 to more than 230 today.
Pillar offers professional development for the nonprofit sector. There are over 1,000 nonprofit groups providing services to the community, much of it through the efforts of volunteers. It is estimated that volunteer services in London are worth approximately $672 million per year whether through giving rides to cancer patients, delivering meals on wheels, or staffing the Library Store.
Members of Council were clearly sympathetic to Pillar’s request for $50,000 to deliver governance and leadership training, giving Baldwin leading questions which allowed her to showcase its strengths, including its ability to partner and fundraise.
Then Ward 14 Councillor Sandy White took the discussion in a whole new direction. Noting that there were more than $5 million in nonprofit funding "asks" (these include all community groups eligible for ongoing funding) she suggested that the process has become too political and perhaps Pillar could take over the granting process. She would be prepared to make a motion to that effect because, and here she became quite agitated, leaders of some nonprofit organizations were asking for or receiving taxpayers’ money while engaging in “unprofessional behaviour” by criticizing councillors and “even you Mr. Mayor” on the internet, in the paper, and in blogs and “yet we’re giving them money”. “Take a look at it,” she urged. “Should I make a motion right now?” That suggestion was dismissed.
Ward 6 Councillor Nancy Branscombe pointed out that Pillar is not a granting agency and expressed regrets that Council had not been able to fund it the previous year. She hoped that Council would be able to assist this year and to “find a more permanent way” to help Pillar do its work. Ward 8 Councillor Paul Hubert pointed out that funding Pillar is an investment, not an expense. However, as the Executive Director of Pathways which I believe is a member nonprofit, he probably should have declared a pecuniary interest.
White tried one more time to make a motion that Pillar become part of the grant awarding process but was advised by the Mayor that any motions should be postponed until a future meeting rather than presenting them at the public participation meeting.
On Twitter, White denied that she was suggesting that nonprofits in receipt of City funding should not be allowed to criticize members of Council. Nevertheless, several other observers in the public gallery had the same understanding. If that was not what she meant, “you have a communications challenge,” tweeted one.
Update: Here is the actual transcript of Sandy White's remarks, thanks to Greg Fowler and Phil McLeod:
“I just want to state I have a pet peeve about the fact some of the (non-profit) leaders in this city and certainly we’re entitled to free speech but the way that they conduct themselves, and yet we’re handing them money from the city, you know they’re in the paper, they’re on their blog. I mean they’re, you know, after councillors, they’re after you Mr. Mayor. I mean these kind of professional, ah non-professional behaviour needs to be addressed. I mean it is the taxpayers’ money we’re giving out, and yet this kind of behaviour is acceptable? These are some of the things in terms of professionalism that we look at and I don’t want to be accused of whining it’s just a fact. If I did that at my job they would say, you know, there’s the door what’s your hurry, here’s your pink slip and don’t look back, we’ll get you a box and see you later. These are some of the issues we need to address in terms of the standards that we set in our non-profit sector in London. Thank you.”
Need I say more?
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