Many MLAs leave community funding on the table
How your MLA spent $50,000 fund for community projects
Members of the New Brunswick legislature looking to dispense a few more taxpayer dollars around their ridings in the coming months may have a hard time making the case for extra money.
A majority of MLAs didn't take full advantage of the $50,000-per-riding Community Investment Fund in the first year after it was created by the Higgs government.
Only two-thirds of the $2.4 million fund, available to MLAs from all parties, was spent in 2019-2020.
Figures obtained by CBC News show only two members spent their full $50,000 and only eight others came close.
"There were many members who were reluctant to use it for a variety of reasons," Regional Development Corporation Minister Andrea Anderson-Mason said during a legislative committee hearing in June.
"For us to go back to government to say, 'We need more money than we had last year,' when we only used 1.6 [million] out of 2.45 is a little bit challenging."
Money for non-profits, local governments
The Community Investment Fund allows all members of the legislature to pick projects in their ridings, subject to approval from the Regional Development Corporation. The projects must be with community non-profit groups or local governments.
The lowest-spending MLA was Liberal Cathy Rogers of Moncton South, who used a mere $2,856 for a single project, the purchase of equipment for a wellness centre.
Rogers said that wasn't because of reluctance on her part. "I want to spend it," she said.
But the former finance minister said she was stymied by the criteria for the program, which doesn't allow projects relating to housing and homelessness, the top focus for many non-profit groups in her riding.
"If anything has anything to do with housing, it does not qualify, and that's what the biggest need is here in Moncton South."
Organizations that already receive government funding also don't qualify, which eliminated several other worthy projects, she said.
Fredericton-York People's Alliance MLA Rick DeSaulniers used $44,503 of his funding on projects like a heat pump for a rural recreation centre, a defibrillator for another rec centre, a wheelchair ramp for a Legion hall and a water softener for a curling club.
He tried to divide his $50,000 into equal grants of $2,500, although some ending up being higher or lower. "I wanted to make it non-political and fair. … It was a really good process."
Riding by riding list of projects (PDF KB)
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Big cities, small spenders
Aside from Rogers, five other MLAs, four Progressive Conservatives and one Liberal, spent less than $10,000 last year: PC cabinet ministers Glen Savoie, Ted Flemming, Trevor Holder and Sherry Wilson, and Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Rob McKee.
All six represent ridings in the greater Moncton or Saint John areas.
DeSaulniers said there may be more eligible non-profit groups in need of funds in rural ridings like his. "It's easier for me to give it away than someone, say, in the centre of Moncton," he said.
But some MLAs representing urban areas had no trouble finding projects.
Liberal MLA Gerry Lowe spent $38,174 in Saint John Harbour and Riverview PC MLA Bruce Fitch delivered $38,419 to his riding.
And Fredericton North Liberal MLA Stephen Horsman was among the highest-spending members with $49,381 in projects.
One of the ridings with the lowest totals, Shediac Bay-Dieppe with $6,000, was without an MLA for more than half of the 2019-20 fiscal year. Former premier Brian Gallant resigned the seat last October.
But the lack of an MLA didn't hurt the Saint Croix riding, whose PC MLA Greg Thompson died last September. It received $36,132 in funding despite being without an elected member for almost the same amount of time.
According to the development corporation's website, MLAs are "consulted" about funding applications in their ridings but the agency can make decisions without them if they "refuse to respond in a timely manner to requests for funding."
Only two MLAs, Liberal Gilles LePage of Restigouche West and Progressive Conservative Bill Oliver of Kings Centre, managed to spend every last dime of the $50,000 they had to work with last year.
Eight other members, five PCs and three Liberals, came within $1,000 of maxing out their allocations.
Leaders avoid maxing out
Party leaders were active with their community fund allocations but didn't push them to their limits.
Premier Blaine Higgs brought home a modest $28,768 to Quispamsis, Green Leader David Coon funded $37,884 in projects in Fredericton South and People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin had $32,102 of community fund spending in Fredericton-Grand Lake.
Earlier this year the government announced a new Community Investment Fund category for non-profit organizations hurt by COVID-19. In the 2020-21 fiscal year, groups can get up to $10,000 for coronavirus-related assistance but it comes out of the $50,000 total.
At June's committee hearing, Liberal MLA Francine Landry asked if the province will increase the total per riding because COVID-19 "has been putting a lot of stress on the amount that we will need to help … the usual events and initiatives that we do encourage in our communities."
Anderson-Mason said Regional Development Corporation was seeking "a little bit of flexibility" on the funding this year, which could include going beyond $50,000 per riding.
"We're absolutely willing to look at that and be flexible," she said. "If your region is suffering more, we need to know that and we need to be able to adjust accordingly."
She said the agency had received 225 applications for funding as of mid-June, a third of which were for COVID-19-related costs.
So far this year, it had approved 88 projects worth a total of $427,000, she said.
Rogers said this year she put out a more "sweeping" call for applications from eligible groups in Moncton South, and $28,000 in projects have already been approved with her help.
"I tell you, it's going to be different this year."
DeSaulniers says he's been fielding requests from organizations, particularly community halls and organizations that have seen revenues dry up because of events cancelled by the pandemic.
"I'm going to try to spend more than $50,000 if I can," he said. "I'll go as high as they let me."
- An earlier version of this story said that the riding of Finance Minister Ernie Steeves was among six that received less than $10,000 in CIF funding. The riding is Moncton Southwest and is held by Service New Brunswick Minister Sherry Wilson.Jul 20, 2020 2:28 PM AT