LOWER SACKVILLE: Halifax Regional Council’s intent to have North West Community Council (NWCC) oversee the approval of grants submitted to the LWF Ratepayers Association (LWFRA) for funding isn’t going quite as smoothly as they hoped.
In fact, just days before they were to approve three grant applications HRM Legal staff informed council that all NWCC could do was recommend the approval of the requests from the three projects back to regional council.
Back in July 2017, as part of the discussion and amendment around the LWFRA area rate, which has seen at least one resident on social media vocal against the area rate as well as messages to councillor Steve Streatch, regional council agreed to have it seen by NWCC.
At the NWCC meeting on April 9 at a packed Acadia Hall in Lower Sackville, close to 60 residents turned up to let NWCC councillors know how vital and important the area rate is to the community, and how it has helped many community organizations and sports clubs.
Barb Wilson, from HRM Finance, presented on how they got to this point. She stated there are 20 area rates across HRM, and all are in the process of being reviewed. She noted LWFRA was not being fingered out, but what stood out to make them the first one is their surplus.
“The reason we’re here is that the LWFRA has requested to provide grants to different groups from the area rate funds they collect through the tax bill,” said Wilson. “We did have a report in 2014 which took many area rates and put them under the general tax rate, which every homeowner in HRM pays.
“As part of that the next step is a review that we’re currently conducting, and governance was one of the issues.”
She said she started questioning many of the area rates that have a huge surplus in them. LWFRA is one of those.
“What they are doing with that surplus is providing various grants to groups in their community,” she said. “Some people were not comfortable that tax dollars were given out by groups providing grants. We have to look seriously at what’s on tax bills.”
Wilson did confirm that they have no governance issues with how the LWRA has been operating, something that had been mentioned in the community as an ongoing issue.
She said regional council anticipated NWCC to have the oversight, but the HRM charter prevents that.
“Unfortunately, due to restrictions in the HRM charter an additional step is required, and that regional council will further have to consider the matter by recommendation,” said Wilson.
Many residents turned out to let their voices be heard—all in support of the good work the area rate and subsequently the grants funding provide for the community.
Janice MacNeil-Lantz said the desire to add grants was because there was a surplus.
“The LWFRA wants to be able to do more in the community and not just have funds sitting in a bank account at HRM,” she said.
LWFRA President Marni Tuttle spoke, saying the area rate is something that she and the community supports. But if this NWCC oversight is to continue she wanted to explain how the process could be improved.
“In July, without talking to the board, the community, the LWFRA, HRM against their own policies brought forward a report recommending the amended rate, which was unpopular in our community,” she said. “I think many of the councillors around the table will remember the influx of emails that came.”
Tuttle said the LWFRA has followed all of the rules, with the end result being an amended motion giving NWCC the authority to approve the grants. The language they use is grants, rather than special projects as used by others with area rates, was recommended to them by HRM staff to use.
She said the group found out April 6 the finish line for the grants approval was moved again to regional council, not April 9 as they had been told initially.
“This creates a needless and circular approval,” she said. “The unintended consequence is delayed funding to our community groups.”
Tuttle said it certainly seems like the grant funding requires an undue and unprecedented amount of approval for a community recreational rate.
“It may very well acerbate the accumulation of unallocated funds because of the delays created by this unnecessary step,” she said.
Louise MacDonald, a resident of Windsor Junction, spoke about a trip in October 2017 to the scout camp in Miller Lake where the leader informed her and other parents of the vandalism done.
“I knew about the amazing process and grant funding the community had, so I knew good things were going to happen,” MacDonald said. “But they’re still waiting.”
She said the people who sit on the WJCC and LWFRA are all about the community who work tirelessly for the betterment of the community.
“It doesn’t have to change if these people are doing the processes and following the proper rules,” she said. “They can be a great model for what can work for a ratepayers association.”
Jay Cameron, a resident of Fall River, said things need to slow down and an agreement on what the path forward is.
“It’s unclear to us (the LWFRA board) if these restrictions are going to go on perpetuity,” he said.
Cameron said the community is stepping up and aware of what the LWFRA is all about.
“I don’t see any detractors here tonight, but I have seen some online, one single voice more than any,” said Cameron. “The only detractor that has contacted the LWFRA is that single voice you see online, who is not here tonight.”
Brad Browne of Waverley wondered if a change in wording from recreational grant to special projects so regional council isn’t wasted on something NWCC should be able to approve.
Cathy Deagle-Gammon said when she and her husband moved to the area 23 years ago, her realtor told her about the area rate, and explained what it was for when they inquired.
“One of the things that is beautiful about the area rate is it funds things in the community that HRM cannot,” she said. “I think when we talk about this we have to think if this money doesn’t get spent in the way it supports the community. Punting it back and forth like a volleyball doesn’t help our scouts; doesn’t help our minor baseball; doesn’t help SWEPS with the trails.
“We have a feeling of community, but what’s happening here I feel might take away from that. We want to protect that and I think that’s why our community is here.”
She implored that nine months after regional council put it to NWCC for approval of grant funding and to find out less than a week before that there is a legal issue is too late to help community groups in the area.
“It’s nine months too late for our community and what we want to do with this money,” said Deagle-Gammon. “It perpetuates the surplus funds in the next budget year and the next budget year.
“Hopefully, you guys can figure how to mitigate the damage. It’s communication, and in our community what’s happened now is a real lack of timeliness, accurate information, and responding back to the community group and that’s what we need to resolve.
“Hopefully we can resolve it in a way that we’re not treated differently then 19 other area rates.”
Leonard Zappia said he and his wife chose Windsor Junction specifically because of the area rate they were paying recreation, such as the WJCC.
“We want this stuff, but how much of this gets affected if it gets taken over by another form of government versus our own self-governance with the LWFRA?” he asked.
Councillor Steve Streatch commented at the end of the public participation. He acknowledged that many in the community are not his biggest fans.
“I’m not your enemy,” said Streatch.”Someone asked when all of this started. I suppose a lot of people would say in October 2016 when I was elected. That’s not really the case.”
He said he can see the issue is one at heart for residents. He doesn’t believe in taxation without representation.
“I have learned that you all care very deeply about your community,” Streatch told the crowd. “I have also learned that communication is key, and whether that’s from your elected officials to the community or if it’s between you as a baord of directors and proponents of the LWFRA, and the ratepayers it’s the same issue.
Streatch said not everyone in the LWFRA area shares the same opinion as those in support of the area rate do.
“I can tell you folks that not everyone shares your exuberance,” he said. “Right, wrong, or indifferent. All of the ratepayers that you answer too, that I answer too, have an opinion.
“If anything comes out of this meeting tonight, it’s got to be that the lines of communication have to be opened. That has to happen.”
He said there are those in the community with questions and that the LWFRA has its work cut out to communicate that to them.
“I’m not against the work you’re doing,” Streatch said. “I personally, and I can only speak personally, think there are many ways to deal with funding issues in our communities.”
Streatch said this could be a turning point.
“You’re on the front edge of a curve that many other organizations are going to benefit from,” he said. “The pain that you’re experiencing here may be lessened by some of those organizations.”
Councillors unanimously passed the motion to recommend to regional council the approval of the three grant applications before them. They are $30,000 to SWEPS for the construction of three trail systems—the Holland Coach Trail, Sports Park Connector, and Portobello Connector; $5,000 to the Riverlake Scout Group to install replacement window and vandalism deterrents, etc.; and $15 k to LWF Minor Baseball to cover the cost of replacement baseball lights at the Dan Franklin Memorial Field at the Windsor Junction Community Centre (WJCC).
The grants are scheduled to be on the April 24 regional council agenda.