Sustainability Commission funding in flames as museum budget nearly doubles for 2013

Andrew Bennett
By Andrew Bennett
May 4th, 2013

Funding to community groups was cut by four per cent (about $14,000) relative to 2012 levels overall at Wednesday evening’s committee of the whole (COW), with the Sustainability Commission taking the main hit as funding for the SC manager disappeared—ostensibly to bring the role “in house” to the city—while the city granted a $20,000 increase to the museum budget.

Please note: all council decisions at a COW, as related here, are considered recommendations pending official ratification at a “regular” meeting, the next of which is on May 6.


We cover minor cuts to other groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Rossland, more extensively in a separate article. One cause for the cuts is cost overruns in the Columbia-Washington project.


In total, council reduced the “community support” budget items by about $47,000 (12 per cent) less than the groups requested for 2013.


The big hit, however, was to the Sustainability Commission (SC), whose loss accounts for the vast majority of the city’s “community support” savings.


The SC’s original budget request was for $35,000, but that was reduced to $28,000 shortly before the COW—already $12,000 less than last year’s budget, and $2000 less than the group actually spent last year. Ultimately, council slashed the budget to zero. 


Approximately two-thirds of the SC budget funded a manager to coordinate the various task forces, act as a hotline to support volunteer efforts, seek and apply for grants, advertise and manage events, and other less-than-glamourous but essential functions for the society that are typically hard to find volunteers to do thoroughly and consistently.


Moving the other way, the museum’s 2012 budget of $29,000 was increased to about $49,000, about $3000 less than the group requested as they try to increase museum hours and bring on a new curator.


Coun. Moore’s plan


Coming into the meeting, Coun. Moore had an idea to make “modest cuts” across the board to community groups this year, and then “work with them going forward” to make deeper cuts in successive years. Making an exception for groups receiving less than $5000, she suggested a five per cent cut from what they were funded last year.


Moore expressed regret that this plan would only fund the museum about $27,500 and the library at about $120,000, agreeing that these groups both had legitimate proposals to support their 2013 requests of $52,000 and $136,000 respectively, but “the timing is wrong,” she said.


Moore also noted that the SC had worked hard with the city planner to whittle their request down from $35,000 to $28,000. Moore explained, “By [the city] taking over some of the tasks that they do and bringing them in-house, their request can be reduced to $28,000.” In particular, Moore suggested the city take on the Carbon Neutral Kootenay’s project.


“They’re already a poster child for reducing reliance on the city,” Moore said about the SC, which started out in 2009 with a budget of $80,000, “and still they do what they do.”


Mayor Greg Granstrom said, “That’s one way to look at it.” He suggested the SC “lose the manager and keep doing their great work with an in-house manager, then the $35,000 is gone.”


Moore responded, “My concern is that the SC manager is paid $40 per hour with no over time. If we use staff, that’s $46 to $79 per hour. It only makes sense [to go in-house] if there’s excess capacity [in staff time].”


She added, “I’m not sure we would get the same results that we get with an outside manager,” noting the “multiplier effect” of a manager coordinating “thousands of volunteer hours. “With staff, I don’t know if we’ll get the same benefits, and we also risk gutting some of these [sustainability] groups. If we don’t treat them well and politely, we risk alienating our hardworking volunteers.”


“I think politeness goes two ways,” the mayor responded.


Council sharpens its axe and puts the Sustainability Commission on the block


Coun. Kathy Wallace made a motion that the manager be brought in-house for city staff, and that the 2013 budget item for the SC be reduced to income already owed to the SC manager, and other money already spent this year.


“I realize the SC has managed to do some interesting projects for the city, but when we look at priorities and core service, this seems like a bit of a luxury,” Wallace said.


Coun. Jody Blomme, expressed confusion, “Is this $40 per hour for a secretary writing up the minutes?” Several councillors immediately answered, “No,” describing the position as one of central coordination.


Blomme continued, “I’ve been very active in volunteer groups,” she said, “but volunteerism is a dying culture. When we’re paying managers to do work that was historically done by volunteers, we’re kind of enabling the dying of the volunteer culture. I think there’s a lot of value in these community groups, but we’re within our responsibility to roll back and take away funding they’ve started to depend on and have an entitlement to.”


Coun. Jill Spearn disagreed. “First, looking at community support groups, I agree with Coun. Moore that a five to 10 per cent cut for the majority of groups is warranted. But to say, we’re going to take the SC management position away and leave the rest, that makes me nauseous. Yes, we need a strategy to wean community groups away from the city, but these groups make up the social fabric of our community.”


Spearn also countered Blomme’s assertion that cutting out management positions is a sensible way to combat “dying volunteerism.” Spearn said, “You’d be naive to say in a culture that volunteerism is diminishing that it’s better to not have a coordinator. That’s a contradiction.”


Spearn went on to point out the spin-off benefits the SC has brought to the fore, including the Energy Diet.


At an event to celebrate the Sustainability Commission’s work on the Energy Diet last July, one attended by MLA Katrine Conroy, Mayor Granstrom said at the time: “I think the numbers speak for themselves. To save more than a million kilowatts in electricity halfway through [the program] and have more than $1.5 million invested in the community is a real win-win.”


Spearn concluded, “As far as groups that have really generated a lot of economy in this community, the reason we’re not a dying town is because of most of these groups on this piece of paper.”


Coun. Cary Fisher said, “I would cut the SC completely. At the outset the SC was to be funded for 3 years with the idea that they would be sustainable after that. I don’t think bringing it in-house is a good idea either. We can try and support it in other ways but now, looking forward, we’re not going to have the money anyway.”


Coun. Tim Thatcher concurred, “I’m not in favour of giving it away to city staff, it will take away resources from core services. It’s just another burden.”


Blomme said, “I imagine the SC would carry on. I’m not trying to make it defunct or stop what they’re doing, but it will keep going.”


Moore disagreed, “I don’t think it will be able to continue as robustly as it has without a paid manager. I’m certainly in favour of some things in-house, such as the Carbon Neutral Kootenays program.” 


Moore attempted to ask a question to staff: “The SC manager does 575 hours of work—based on Coun. Wallace’s proposal, does staff have the capacity to take on 575 hours of work?”


Granstrom did not let staff respond. “First of all, the SC reports to council, and perhaps 575 hours is too much work. We should prioritize that and make cuts to that based on available resources.”


Moore said, “So we’re going to change the work plan we already approved? The net result would be—unless staff says they have 575 hours to spare—that we’re vastly reducing what we expect the SC to do.”


Blomme supported the motion: “Around a [society] board, if there’s a paid member, jobs fall to them; if there’s no paid member, the workload is spread more evenly. The SC may have to take on more volunteers.”


Wallace’s motion was carried with Spearn, Moore, and Fisher opposed.


Museum gets a big funding boost, but council is deeply divided


After debating the other community groups (see this article) council arrived at the Rossland Museum and Historical Society’s 2013 request for $51,900, a $23,000 increase over last year’s funding of $28,900.


Spearn made a motion to leave the museum funding at $28,900, as for 2012. “I’m well aware of the presentation brought to council and the future concept,” she said, but argued that a funding increase should wait until the “future concept” of the Gateway Project was realized or much closer to being realized. “I do support the museum, I just want to see it revitalized first. It can stay the same for 2013 and we can reconsider in 2014.”


Moore seconded the motion, “but I wanted a five per cent discount,” she said, on the 2012 funds.


Mayor Granstrom argued firmly against the motion. “You are aware Ms. Austin is retiring?” he asked. “To let her walk out without [a successor] puts the museum in dire straits. If we don’t get a new person in there, all planning so far will be for nought, we’re closing the door [on the Gateway Project.]”


Spearn replied, “Are you inferring that no one else would take the position from Ms. Austin right now? Lots of people need jobs.”


Granstrom replied, “the curator is a bit of a specialized job, hopefully we find one on the low end of the training scale and the money will be there to move ahead and replace the curator position.”


Moore rejected the idea that the $23,000 increase was just for the succession plan. “There are increased costs for opening hours and increased labour. It’s great to have the museum open more, but the museum will benefit more from support when there is more to support.” She agreed with Spearn that increased funding should wait until the Gateway Project—which she called “a skookum thing”—is underway.


She added, “I’m not comfortable having a gun to our head because the museum didn’t have a succession plan. The timing is wrong [for a funding increase.] We have to make cuts somewhere, and everyone has good reasons for the funds they request.”


Granstrom replied, “Timing for this one is crucial. We have excellent corporate support: if we were to say we’re backing up and not supporting the facility, we’re saying to our potential partners that we’re not that interested in it.”


He continued by noting the select committee on the museum from the previous council and “extensive community consultation” that revealed “unanimous support for the need to preserve our history and heritage in community.”


“We have to increase the museum’s potential to generate revenue,” he said. “If we’re going to make something out there that’s sustainable and a draw, then we have to support this in a way that shows we are in support.”


Blomme said, “I understand we need to be invested in it to trigger support of corporate partners, but why this year are we deciding to be open three days a week over winter, when previously it was not open at all? Why this year, when it’s more expensive than ever? There must be some middle ground.”


Coun. Tim Thatcher clarified that a report by museum consultants had identified the days in winter “as a time when most tourists come through.”


Moore rejected the suggestion that not approving the increase would indicate a lack of support. “That’s a red herring,” she said. “What the museum is asking for is predominantly money to be used for more labour. We can fully support our museum—and the new plans going forward are very exciting—by supporting them as we have supported them in the past.”


She added, “Right now, they don’t have anything new to put out there to bring in new people.” She noted that museum membership sits at 78 who pay dues—of which Moore has usually been one. “I love the museum, but I don’t go that often.”


Moore argued, “If this were coming up next year, we would need to open up because we’ve got the Gateway. This year the timing is wrong and the increase is not necessary, especially when we were so quick to offload other things.”


Where Moore thought the motion could have cut the museum’s funding a bit more deeply, Wallace said, “I think this is going too far.”


Wallace argued, “Since the closure of the adit, the museum has been limping along. If we reduce them to last year’s plan, that’s a significant reduction of their request. There has been a significant effort to make sure the museum is going to succeed and not going to close its doors.”


Coun. Fisher sees no hope for revenue generation without a very large marketing budget and industrial subsidies


Spearn’s motion was defeated and Blomme made a new motion to give the museum 95 per cent of their request for $51,900.


“The data on small museums in small communities is not good,” Fisher said. “As much as people who work and volunteer and love the place—and that’s all kinds of passion—the fact remains: the graph is pointing down.”


“To resurrect something like [the museum], I don’t see how it’s going to happen. The people who come to Rossland come to ski, to bike, to walk on trails; they come for all those reasons, but they don’t come here for the museum. I can’t support the motion.”


“We’re going to find next year [the museum] will be here [to request] an increase for more staff,” he said, predicting that the increased funding request is not a temporary measure but a permanent trend.


Then Fisher predicted financial failure for the museum: “The money won’t come in. I have great friends on the museum board and we’re at loggerheads over this. But with small museums in small communities, I see it being very, very, very difficult unless you get operational funding [ad] infinitum from an institutional partner.”


“Go ahead with this,” he said. “Open in winter, do all those things, but next year you’re going to be worse off than you are this year.”


Granstrom “respectfully disagreed,” and appealed to the findings of the museum’s consultants, “experts in the museum industry.” He acknowledged, “I recognize they have an interest.”


Moore added, “I agree with a lot that Coun. Fisher is saying, but I also feel heritage tourism is increasing in popularity as baby boomers age. If we had a good product to offer, we could do better than we’re doing.”


Beyond her optimism, Moore countered, “But it’s hard to be a revenue generator rather than a drain on municipal resources unless there are creative ways to finance this. I will not throw the baby out with the bathwater and I will support this motion, but we have to be more creative. We cannot get money from taxpayers to fund this.”


Granstrom agreed, “We have to generate revenue or else it’s not sustainable, I’m well aware of that. I’m on the [museum] board, I understand that.”


Blomme justified the increase: “This is a one-off for them to build momentum.”


Spearn said, “I’m of two minds. It’s a wonderful piece of heritage, history, that tells the story of who we are and who we were before. But I’ve seen no momentum from the select committee to engage kids to come to the museum. I’m one of few taking classes down to the museum.”


“I’m really worried about this project,” she admitted. “I felt we could hold off to increase funding until we see the Gateway Project, or at least until we have accepted the RFP [request-for-proposals] for how it’s going to come back.”


Fisher brought it back to economic realities, and suggested that people needed to appreciate the large scale of marketing budget required to make this project fly. “The marketing budget for a museum would more than likely have to reflect the same marketing budget as any other tourism type business would engage,” he said. “It has to be big.”


He predicted great difficulty—”without a deficit”—to manage both an infrastructure budget and an ongoing marketing budget. “Even if it’s shiny and new, the marketing budget is significant. If you don’t put that in, people won’t come.”


He repeated his warning, “Go ahead, give them more money, the proof will be in the pudding.”


The motion was carried with Fisher and Spearn opposed.


Spearn commented later, “I have to smile at myself when the mayor talks about the museum and used the ‘sustainability’ word, and we just nixed the SC coordinator.”


Concerns over process


Typically public council meetings where the budget is deliberated must be publicly advertised to alert residents who would like to attend to witness the debate.


The lack of public at Wednesday’s meeting—with the exception of the new library manager—spoke of a failure to alert residents that an important budget meeting was taking place.


Indeed, at the end of the meeting, Coun. Kathy Moore made a statement to that effect: “I feel uncomfortable that the public was unaware, for whatever technical reasons, that we were having these meetings.”


No public advertisements were made for the meeting, but comments by the CAO in recent weeks support the fundamental importance of public participation in the budget process.


Moore also commented, “I realize there is a time constraint, but I feel there are little things we could do to reduce the budget. We’ve gone from one spring-fall cleanup to two, raising the cost from $17,000 to $41,000. There’s the money we budget for the curling rink, put in there at $26,000, but they only use $12,000.”


Between both concerns, Moore concluded, “We’re skipping over giant swathes of the budget that we might be able to find cost savings on. If we had another meeting, we could find additional savings.”


The next budget meeting begins at 5 p.m. on Monday, May 6. Council hopes to have approved all three readings and adopted the financial plan bylaw by May 13.

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