If you want a classic example of how government baffle-gab and political opportunism can equal the lack of public oversight, look no further than how the federal government has distributed its Community Infrastructure Improvement Fund (CIIF) in Hamilton.
The federal Conservatives allocated $49.6 million from a $150-million pot over a two-year period in Ontario to repair and improve community infrastructure facilities. Municipalities were quick to apply for the money. But the process also allowed for not-for-profit organizations to seek needed funding.
Hamilton councillors quickly approved 18 items, at a cost of about $20 million, to see if they qualified for CIIF funding. Of course, the federal government wasn’t going to fund all of them, but there was hope it would contribute to some of them.
The city identified the Ancaster Senior Centre as its top priority, with the help of local councillor Lloyd Ferguson. During the last municipal election, he promised his constituents that he would get the money to improve the city-owned facility. He was making good on his word. The city was asking for $500,000 from the federal government, with Hamilton providing $500,000, and the Ancaster Seniors Centre group contributing $500,000.
The top five priorities on council’s list also included $680,000 to repair the West Hamilton Shoreline, $2.7 million to renovate Dundas’s J.L. Grightmire Arena, $655,000 for the Hamilton Children’s Museum and $1.3 million to restore the Auchmar Estate. Outside the top 10 was renovating Sackville Senior Centre at $1.3 million.
After repeated requests to the federal government by Hamilton Community News it was revealed by happenstance from city officials that the Ancaster Senior Centre would get its needed $500,000. But what about the other projects? Again, it took calls from Hamilton Community News to pry out the projects the government would fund. A few weeks later, in a surprise news conference in Dundas, where there was no media, the federal government announced it was providing money to the Hamilton Conservation Authority for an Eco-Park.
After much effort, the federal government finally sent a list of the projects that would receive money to Hamilton Community News. In Hamilton, only the Ancaster Seniors Centre and the Hamilton Conservative Authority was getting funding, according to the list. Federal officials refused to say if any other Hamilton project is getting funding. But Hamilton officials insisted the Sackville Seniors Recreation Centre was getting funding from the federal government. Huh?
In response to a Hamilton Community News story about how Hamilton was getting short-shrift in the CIIF funding, local MP David Sweet wrote a letter explaining how the city has benefited from the program. It took further cajoling to get him to reveal which other non-profit organizations would see the benefits. They include the Emergency Homeless Shelter, with $71,500; Hamilton Community Aboriginal Friendship Centre renovation at $223,071 and the Eva Rothwell Resource Centre at $150,000.
Repeated requests asking why the federal government selected the projects, what the criteria was, and how was it used have been repeatedly batted away.
Hamilton city staff stated the criteria included demonstrating the projects’ economic benefits to their communities, project readiness and the ability to leverage 66.6 per cent of the funding from other sources.
One reason Ancaster shot to the top of the priority list is that the seniors organization was raising $500,000. Yet, it is still not project ready. While the plans may be about to be tendered, it has yet to receive any city permits, and it is without environmental approvals
As the feds continue to hand out money, it does so without public accountably, or scrutiny. It has so far led to confusion, lax oversight and political opportunism benefiting the few rather than the entire community.