Fund offers councillors cash for community projects

A proposed community fund for Saint John councillors would give each of them $1,500 to spend on local community groups and projects.

Councillors on the city's finance committee voted to endorse a draft community fund policy at a meeting Wednesday and send it to council for approval. The fund, proposed by Coun. Gerry Lowe in a 2023 committee of the whole meeting, is meant for "financial support to community based organizations" and to fund "minor city asset improvements" such as park benches, clerk Jonathan Taylor told the meeting.

It's a "really good way to start this," Coun. Gary Sullivan, the committee chair, told Brunswick News. He said the policy's requirements, including requiring each donation to receive council approval, are "cautious and makes sense."

Taylor told the meeting that councillors can apply for the money using one of two forms. To provide money to an outside group, a community organization operating in Saint John has to show it needs the money for a project and then provide expenditure reports after the fact. For a minor project the city itself takes on, an application would be sent to the relevant city commissioner for review, he said.

Prospective projects would be approved by council as part of the "consent agenda," or an omnibus motion at the start of each meeting that passes without debate, unless a councillor asks to turn it into a regular agenda item. The policy limits contributions to a minimum of $500 because more smaller donations could amount to too much work, Taylor said.

Coun. David Hickey told the meeting he "struggled" with that, saying he imagined being able to put smaller donations toward neighbourhood-led projects like community gardens. He suggested that instead of needing council approval, the contributions could be listed in a councillor's annual report, which is how the ticket-purchasing policy works.

The city's finance commissioner Kevin Fudge said they worked to "streamline" the process, and that transparency was an important part of the policy. He also noted that it's "not a donation," but a grant with an expected outcome.

"My concern was we might make the process a little cumbersome," Hickey told Brunswick News, saying it's still a positive step. "Need for transparency, but strike that balance."

Sullivan told Brunswick News that council often asks staff to do more without taking items off their plate at the same time. He said the policy creates a maximum of 33 more agenda items and applications to file, and called it a "good starter" that can be revisited down the line.

In his role on the Board of Commissioners for Saint John Energy, Sullivan said he often directs charity money and said it's "really hard" because there are so many good organizations in the city that could use the money.

"They're going to learn how difficult it is to make some choices," he said.

When asked what happens if two councillors choose the same project, Sullivan said there were some "off-line" conversations about that, saying that is part of what makes it important to track applications. The draft policy stipulates that when councillors combine their allocations, a unanimous vote is needed to approve the grant.

At the meeting, Coun. Greg Norton called it a "good start," saying there may be efficiencies down the line but a "bureaucrat-thick" approach protects councillors as well as the integrity of the process.

Coun. Paula Radwan said she could "easily find 20 places to put the money" but doesn't want to create too much work for staff. Mayor Donna Reardon said she's happy with the policy as it's written, saying council needs to work with staff to find out how to make the process "stick."

The policy will now go to council for approval.

Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal