A major city grant program will not see an increase in funds this year, meaning there won’t be enough money to cover all the St. Albert community groups looking for financial help.
City councillors agreed Sept. 8 not to increase the new per-capita rate of the city's outside agency grant program from $9 to $10.20. Doing so would have come at a cost of $80,000 to the city, increasing the funding available from $594,738 to $674,036. The $10.20 rate was based on covering the requests of last year’s intake.
The increase was initially proposed from the city’s community living standing committee in February after some organizations saw their funding cut by close to 50 per cent in 2019.
In 2018, council established the new funding model and opened up the program to more organizations. Last year was the first year the per-capita funding formula took effect.
Coun. Natalie Joly put forward the motion to keep the current rates the same this year considering the financial impacts of COVID-19. Funding could still be increased during budget discussions this fall if it fits within the bigger financial picture, she said.
“It really is not the right time to make a policy decision to permanently increase funding because of what we’re facing,” Joly said.
Mayor Cathy Heron said she recognized organizations are facing increased demand amid the pandemic, but “throwing money at a policy right now isn’t the right way to go.”
The city’s fiscal and operational review will also give the city a better idea of how to make the best use of its budget, Heron said.
The organizations applying for this grant primarily serve vulnerable populations in the city, Coun. Jacquie Hansen said.
That need has been exacerbated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and not changing the formula may force organizations to change how they operate, she said.
“The people who use these organizations need it the most ... I think the investment in the vulnerable population at this time is the best we can do to get through COVID-19 and bring back a resilient thriving community.”
The motion passed 6-1, with Hansen opposed.
Current rate 'disabling'
Cheryl Dumont spoke to council ahead of their decision. She is the executive director of the St. Albert and District Further Education and the board chair for the St. Albert Housing Society.
Dumont said she appreciates the funding from the municipality as it would be difficult for these organizations to survive without it.
“At the same time, it is disappointing that all of us are going to get 40 to 50 per cent less than what we need from the city’s formula,” she said in an interview with the Gazette.
Over the years, the Housing Society has dealt with gradual cutbacks on this grant funding. Through the pandemic, the organization’s renters have been able to keep up with payments, but it’s the operational side of things that they need help with to bring more units of affordable housing to the city.
The organization went from receiving a high of $110,000 a year, which enabled the group to keep on an executive director, to $42,000 last year. That amount isn't enough to cover the $48,000 in taxes the organization pays the city for the 27 units it owns.
The organization has moved twice to reduce their rent, and is down to one staff member and a “very hard-working” nine-member volunteer board, Dumont said.
“We haven’t had an executive director for three years, so it is disabling in that way,” she said.
When the organization doesn’t receive adequate funds from the city, it means they can’t pay down the line of credit taken out to purchase additional units, which stalls their efforts to add to the city's capacity, she explained.
Dumont estimated the city needs at least 4,000 affordable rental units for vulnerable populations, most of them families with children, when there are only a few hundred available at this time.
Further Education also depends on the funding to cover expenses, as they pay about $36,000 a year on rent for their location on McKenney Avenue, a cost that is expected to increase next year. That programming can be instrumental in helping newcomers transition into St. Albert, Dumont said.
Without a rate increase, these agencies will continue to face a "great deal of pressure" to make up those funds, either by fundraising during a pandemic or investing more time into grant writing. Staff burnout is a concern, she said.
"We do what we can, but the more effort you have to expend there, the less time that you have for creating new programs that help those most vulnerable in our community."