Regional board continues to wrestle with economic development idea

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June 09, 2015

PENTICTON - A question of transparency in how the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen hands out grants for economic development appears to have inspired directors to consider adding more money on it.  

It started with a simple concept at a committee meeting in February. Instead of giving the Okanagan Film Commission a grant-in-aid every year (last year, it got $34,000), West Bench Director Michael Brydon suggested it would be more transparent to call it what it is — an economic development budget. But that call for transparency opened the door to a question of further economic development, which the board cut in 2003.

At last week’s meeting, Chief Administrative Officer Bill Newell said the previous economic development bylaw allowed the board a maximum $100,000 to draw on, as an example of possible funding.

Oliver Director Ron Hovanes made it clear he wants that open door slammed shut again calling it 'a $100,000 slush fund' that directors or managers could play with.

“I really hesitate to take public trust dollars and say ‘we’re just going to throw $100,000 for regional economic development, and hopefully we’ll find some ideas down the road on how we can spend it.’ That’s kind of what I see here,” he said.

Brydon reiterated his concerns.

“The simple fact is this board is doing economic development with everyone participating for the film commission, the Olympics — and those amounts are hidden away in a 526-page budget, so no one can find them,” he said.

Directors can dig deeper into how the service is provided if it’s a budget item, not a grant-in-aid.

This discussion will continue at the June 18 meeting.

To contact the reporter for this story, email Steve Arstad at sarstad@infonews.ca or call 250-488-3065. To contact the editor, email mjones@infonews.ca or call 250-718-2724.

Comments

Just to be clear: There is a difference between a "requisition limit" and a budgeted amount.  Whenever a regional district in British Columbia creates a new service (in this case Economic Development) the district is required to specify the upper-bound of the amount potentially collected from taxpayers.  The province will not approve the service without this limit.

But the "requisition limit" is just an annual maximum.  It only means that NOT MORE than that amount will be requisitioned from taxpayers to fund the service.  In the case of an Economic Development budget, I am strongly in favor of a starting budget of $0.  The board will then consider the economic development proposals in front of it and decide (through the usual debate) how much to fund in a given year.  Of course, the total amount cannot exceed the requisition limit.

This is what we do now.  But any money we do spend on economic development gets rolled into a "grant in aid" line item under "General Government" in the RDOS budget.  This is not obvious or transparent, hence the change.  This new service results in no new spending or changes in the allocation process.  Rather, it is only a change in how  these expenses are reported in the public budget documents.

In past years our "economic development" spending has been about $35K, which is our share of the Okanagan Film Commission.  From time to time other economic development opportunities arise.  For example we funded a promotional presence for the RDOS at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.   It seemed like a good opportunity, although we will never know if we got any bang for those bucks.  Economic Development is often an act of faith: promote your region and you will see an economic return. 

Bottom line: there is no slush fund.  Mayor Hovanes is absolutely correct on this: slush funds are terrible public policy.  Instead, there is now a page in the budget binder called "Economic Development" with a starting tax requisition of $0.  It is up to the RDOS Board if it wants to add an item to that page and collect taxes to pay for it.

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