Saanich council will not— at least for now — clarify the nature and use of a contigency fund.
Council, meeting as committee of the whole, voted 5-4 with Couns. Judy Brownoff, Susan Brice, Nathalie Chambers, and Rebecca Mersereau opposed to receive a staff report for information that asks council to “provide policy direction to staff” on the council strategic initiatives fund.
The previous council established the fund in 2017. Total contributions to the fund since then have reached $2.4 million. According to updated information, $633,000 remain unallocated. Council has also separately set aside $500,000 for projects around affordable housing.
Councillors heard during the debate from chief administrative officer Paul Thorkelsson that receiving the report for information signals staff not to do more work on developing a policy.
Saanich currently lacks a codified policy for the fund, which council has used for funding a wide variety of projects. The fund has been a subject of controversy in the past, with critics calling it a “slush-fund” outside existing budget control mechanisms.
“The policy is practice,” said Thorkelsson later. “All requests come to council to make a decision to provide the funding or not provide the funding. There is no other policy in place.”
Coun. Zac de Vries had recommended receiving the report in arguing that developing a policy would not only waste time but be of little value once developed.
It is neither practical nor necessary to develop a policy, he said. In developing a policy, council members would have to agree on spending limits and categories of eligible projects among other issues, he said. This process would not only be lengthy, but also runs the risk of tying the hands of councillors, since they do not have a “crystal ball” when it comes to issues that might require resources from the fund.
“So I can’t figure out why we would put a box around a fund that was intended for council to go outside the box and take action on things that are important?” he asked.
He instead spoke in favour of maintaining the current practice of bringing funding requests before the full council for debate and a decision, as with all issues and decisions.
“At the end you of the day, to get those votes, you need to convince your colleagues [to access resources from the fund], and we don’t need a piece of paper telling us exactly how do that,” he said.
Brownoff disagreed. Echoing comments from Mersereau, she called for guidelines that would be flexible, but nonetheless provide some clarity as a matter of accountability towards taxpayers. While the fund has supported some worthwhile initiatives, councillors are after all using taxpayers’ money, she said.
While Mayor Fred Haynes voted for receiving the report, he also raised the possibility that council might return to this issue in the future, by striking a sub-committee that would offer staff some direction for future consideration by the full council at a later date.