Winnipeg's mayor is the only big-city mayor in Canada to have $500,000 in taxpayers' money to spend in the community however he wants, CBC News has learned.

The mayor's Civic Initiatives account is a special fund, with an annual budget of more than $500,000, that is available for Mayor Sam Katz to give to community causes he supports.

The fund was set at $570,000 last year and $513,000 for this year.

Katz spent roughly $210,000 from the fund last year on grants of varying amounts, according to expenditures posted on the City of Winnipeg's website. The unused money goes into a reserve fund.

The account, which has existed in various forms over the past 20 years, does not appear to come with any formal rules on how the money is spent. It's up to the mayor's office to decide what gets funded.

For example, Katz recently said he would spend $200,000 on the Sherbrook Pool, a longtime swimming facility that was shut down abruptly late last year due to concerns it may be structurally unsafe.

A community group spoke at a Jan. 23 committee meeting about the need for the pool to be reopened.

"I took $200,000 out of my budget to address the Sherbrook Pool because I believed it was a very valid comment and something that we should do to try and make sure that we can save the Sherbrook Pool," Katz told reporters after the meeting.

City officials told CBC News they don't know how Katz's money will be spent on the swimming pool, since they are still waiting for an engineering assessment report.

Still, the group that is calling for the pool's reopening says it's thankful for the mayor's financial commitment.

"This is the kind of example where that fund can be used," Marianne Cerilli of Friends of the Sherbrook Pool said Tuesday.

"It's not going to cover the whole project, but it is a signal that there's some goodwill."

No such fund elsewhere

As it turns out, Katz is the only big-city mayor in Canada to have that kind of spending freedom.

CBC News contacted municipal officials in eight other cities — Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon — and asked if their mayors have discretionary spending or civic initiatives accounts.

The only city with anything remotely resembling the mayor's fund is Toronto, where Mayor Rob Ford's office controls a $5,000 account known as the Toronto Hospitality Fund, which covers hospitality expenses related to conferences, workshops, fundraisers and other events being held in the city.

However, unlike the mayor's fund in Winnipeg, the hospitality fund comes with a number of criteria that applicants must meet, including the approval of a review panel.

'All of these groups provide important services to Winnipeggers and I am proud of what we are able to achieve together.'—Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz

Ford has not spent any money from that fund since he took office in December 2010, a city official told CBC News.

In Montreal, all groups must go through a defined application process for funding, with city staff and councillors responsible for vetting and approving those applications.

"Projects, programs, anything like that — it goes through council and it comes out of the larger public funding, basically, to keep it very transparent," said Patricia Lowe, a spokesperson for the city of Montreal.

"If the mayor is seen giving money to a particular event without the entire council voting on it, that could be seen as using it in a more personal way. And it isn't just up to one councillor or mayor to give out money to a particular cause that is close to his or her heart."

In Winnipeg, much of the money that has come out of the mayor's Civic Initiatives account has been spent on sponsoring events and programs, with the dollar amounts ranging from a couple of hundred dollars up to $50,000.

Point Douglas Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, who asked Katz in March for $10,000 towards the New Arts Incubator Program — a ceramics program for adults — told CBC News he told the mayor about the program, asked for the money, and got it.

This past fall, Katz gave $50,000 to the Salvation Army for its new community centre in the city's St. Vital area.

Salvation Army officials said they gave a presentation to the mayor's office, then received the money a few weeks later.

Critics call for oversight

Katz declined requests for an interview, but in a statement emailed to CBC News he said he is proud of the programs that have been funded through the Civic Initiatives account.

"All of these groups provide important services to Winnipeggers and I am proud of what we are able to achieve together," he stated in the email.

Colin Craig of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says the Civic Initiatives account should be scrapped, or at least scrutinized to ensure it's being not being used as the mayor's political slush fund.

"Really, these funds often get used by elected officials to try and get votes," Craig said.

"It makes more sense to look at the fund and maybe how it could be reformed, so that there's more scrutiny over how these dollars are being handed out."

River Heights-Fort Garry Coun. John Orlikow said the mayor's account needs more rules and oversight.

"The public has a right to know what it's used for, which I think they do, but they also have a right to know that it's being done for a community purpose, a public purpose, not just a political purpose," he said.

"Should any one councillor or one mayor have this much money to decide what to do with? I think that question needs to be asked because it is too open and it does provide too much opportunity for political usage rather than, let's say, community."

Winnipeg city councillors also have some freedom in terms of how they spend their discretionary allowances, which are growing this year to almost $120,000 per councillor — an increase of about $40,000.

That money is to help pay for office staff and expenses. But if there is money left over after those expenses are paid, the councillors can use what's left to fund programs or events in their wards.

Orlikow said he believes tighter controls are needed on how councillors spend that money as well.

Source: Document created by CBC News using City of Winnipeg data.

With files from CBC's Ryan Hicks