Northeast Town axes donations budget—then brings it back

NEMI

LITTLE CURRENT – Mayor Al MacNevin’s warning to council that axing the municipality’s donations budget for the remainder of the year was “not a hill to die on” might have struck a chord during the Thursday, June 6 meeting of council.

Following a recorded vote at the Tuesday, June 4 meeting of Northeast Town council, a motion was passed to end any further donations to community groups by the municipality, but a scant two days later, a rescind of that motion was put on the table by the two councillors who had been absent from Tuesday’s meeting, cancelling the original motion and additionally, topping up the donations budget.

The original June 4 motion, which read “Be it resolved that the council of the Corporation of the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands stops granting donations for the balance of the 2019 year” was put on the floor by Councillor Barb Baker.

“I’m definitely not in favour of this,” Councillor Michael Erskine began. “We had a significant surplus of $195,000. Most small organizations require very small amounts. We made the decision to not raise our budget for donations but at the same time supplied a rather large amount of money to a local musical event which severely reduced the amount we have available for other small community groups.”

Councillor Erskine went on to note that council can, moving forward, weigh each and every donation request on its merits and make decisions of support accordingly.

“Lots of our line items go over; lots go under,” the councillor continued. “The idea that we should not support things like children’s programs, athletic programs or donate so that those groups can leverage large amounts makes me very uncomfortable.”

Councillor Erskine then suggested giving smaller amounts.

“Saying no is a wee bit disingenuous,” he added. “Look people in the eye and tell them no, don’t just pass a motion.”

“As a council member who approved a budget with set line items, I understand there’s all kinds of times where budgets are exceeded,” Councillor Baker responded. “As a business owner and budget person, when I reach that limit I don’t continue to spend. To continue to knowingly exceed a line item, that’s not what it’s there to do. Everyone should live within a budget.”

Councillor Al Boyd said he was surprised that council exceeded the donations line item and that while he agreed with Councillor Erskine when it comes to youth programming, “I think we owe it to the community to put a limit on it.”

Councillor Erskine once again pointed out that the municipality saw a significant surplus. “It was clear from the start that the figure wasn’t going to be sufficient. We debate, discuss, go over the smallest asks. At the end of this year, while weighing each ask on its merits, we should have a good idea of what the budget should be. This line item has been static for a long time.”

Councillor Erskine pointed to the volunteer appreciation night hosted by the municipality in honour of its many volunteers and service groups each April. “I dare you to look those people in the eye and say ‘we have a surplus but hey, you’re really not that important.’ I have a problem with that,” he said, imploring council to not go ahead with the motion. “Let’s put our money where our mouth is and say ‘you’re important enough to make that $200 investment,” he concluded, referencing the oft-given donation amount.

Councillor Jim Ferguson asked if council could amend the budget mid-term.

CAO Dave Williamson said yes, they could, but the additional funds would have to come from a reserve account.

Mayor MacNevin then weighed in, saying it’s a philosophical debate.

“It’s historical that a number of our community organizations can come to council and be helped out from time to time,” the mayor said. “This is really such a small item that it really has no bearing on a deficit or surplus situation.”

“If you’re trying to enforce an accounting principle, weigh it against the first person who comes into these chambers and asks for a donation to their worthwhile cause; I don’t think that’s a worthy principle,” Mayor MacNevin continued. “It’s not a hill to die on for me, but I think you’ll find out the first group that comes in here between now and Christmas and gets turned down for a donation, well, I won’t be taking the blame.”

Councillor Bill Koehler shared with the council that he’s never been in favour of the donations budget, and that he supported Councillor Baker’s motion. He said that with a set budget that would not be exceeded, “maybe some people will get applications in earlier next year.”

“This donations budget is not life or death to me,” Councillor Koehler added.

In a recorded vote, Councillors Baker, Boyd, Laurie Cook and Koehler voted in favour of the motion while Councillor Erskine, Ferguson and Mayor MacNevin voted against. Councillors Dawn Orr and Bruce Wood were absent from the meeting. The motion was carried.

On Thursday night, June 6, Councillors Orr and Wood were back in the chamber and not happy with the motion and the vote they had missed.

A new motion was put before the council to rescind the June 4 motion and top up the donations budget from the capital reserve account by $2,500.

“I think it’s very valuable, in my opinion, to help out these small groups,” said Councillor Wood. “I know it’s always been a touchy issue. We need to help every group equally; you can’t just stop half-way through. If you want to quit you need to quit at the start of the year.”

Councillor Koehler asked Councillor Wood if he would be in favour of a limit on donations the following year.

“I’d rather see everyone get a small amount then be cut off completely,” Councillor Wood responded.

“I’ve spoken to this a number of times,” Councillor Orr began. “Some (donations) are line items, some aren’t. One particular group gets two very large donations, which means others get less.”

“This shows that the community is supporting them,” Councillor Orr continued. 

“We can’t go halfway through the year and say ‘no.’ We have to be realistic in the amount we set aside. We need to look really hard at it next budget. Small groups need our support and don’t need to be cut off at the knees.”

Councillor Cook said she would like to see a limit on what each group gets. “It’s not fair that one group gets more.”

In a recorded vote, the motion to rescind the June 4 motion and top up the donations account went as follows, with two councillors changing their vote: Councillors Baker, Boyd, Erskine, Ferguson, Orr, Wood and Mayor MacNevin voted in favour while Councillors Cook and Koehler voted against. The motion to rescind was carried.