By Trevor Busch
While municipal taxpayers have been left out in the cold to the tune of $73,000 in outstanding utilities, funds previously donated to the Arts Council of Taber for the Performing Arts (ACTPA) will not be applied for settling a portion of that bill.
At their Oct. 13, 2015 regular town council meeting, ACTPA had notified council that it was dissolving as an organization and cancelling the lease of the old courthouse, police station, and library complex, and that it wished to donate approximately $29,000 to the town to purchase a new piano, among other related items, for use in the new performing arts centre being proposed by the town’s Performing Arts Centre Committee (PACC).
At that meeting, town council had voted to accept the dissolution and lease cancellation, but had concerns regarding the intended use of the proposed donation funds, and if those funds should be applied to ACTPA’s outstanding accumulated utility bill for the leased structures, an amount totalling approximately $73,000.
“Your administration has looked at that and said it might not be a very friendly choice if you do that,” said CAO Greg Birch, speaking prior to a vote at the Jan. 25 meeting. “Ultimately of course it’s up to you — but not very friendly because people donated to ACT in good will over the years when they were trying to get the Centre Court development going.”
Administration recommended writing off ACTPA’s outstanding utility bill, as the funds proposed for donation were originally received by that organization for the construction and renovation of a performing arts centre development, the now-defunct Centre Court for the Arts project.
“If that money was certainly earmarked — somebody gave a $10,000 cheque and said I want it to be specifically to go to this here — then we would abide by the conditions that it was donated on,” said Coun. Joe Strojwas. “But if these were just funds that were donated at random, they should go to paying off their utility bill, and then we can write off the balance. That’s the distinction that I would make here.”
ACTPA had been unable to afford its utility payments for the leased properties for several years, and currently owed $21,605.02 for town utilities (including penalties) and $50,472.97 for electricity and natural gas (the town has paid those bills each month to avoid third party penalties or termination of service).
“Were the donators even aware that there was this outstanding balance, and how long has this been going on? That’s a lot of utilities,” said Coun. Jack Brewin. “If they hadn’t been paying their bills, why did we let it go so long? Personally I think the money should go to paying the bills. They still owe this money — pay the bills.”
Although acknowledging its outstanding utility bill, ACTPA would prefer to see its $29,000 donation go to purchasing a piano for a future facility, rather than be applied to those utility amounts. Complicating the situation, the funds ACTPA holds were in part donated for capital improvements to the buildings ACTPA leased, to be put toward the now-abandoned Centre Court for the Arts project.
“I still think we need documentation, taking a look at these receipts and seeing if they were specially earmarked,” said Strojwas. “I’m not in favour of the town covering utility costs for a grand piano. We don’t even know if an arts facility is going to be built. All we’re going to do is delay what we’re going to do with the money. Five years, six years down the road, we’re still going to be faced with this here, and then what are we going to do? I think we need to deal with it up front.”
Speaking from the gallery, ACTPA president Ray Sheen indicated that in the case of charitable donations that received a tax receipt, this information can not be made public, leaving the traceability of those donations in question.
“We have a record of nearly every donation, but you’re asking me for something that really can’t be given. It wasn’t donated for a specific part of the Centre, it was put into a ‘pot’, as it were, and the ‘pot’ was about $30,000. I don’t know how we’d ever trace it.”
In an initial motion, town council voted 4-2 to defeat accepting a donation of $29,000 from ACTPA to be applied to the balance of unpaid utilities, and to write off the remaining balance. Coun.(s) Joe Strojwas and Jack Brewin were the sole votes in favour of the motion. Mayor Henk DeVlieger was absent from the meeting.
In a follow up motion, which closely mirrored administration’s original recommendation, council voted 4-2 to accept a donation of approximately $29,000 from ACTPA to purchase an item to be placed in the proposed new performing arts centre complex once it is completed, in recognition of Taber and area residents and businesses towards development of the previous Centre Court for the Arts project; to hold that donation in a separate Town of Taber reserve account, with any interest earned accumulating within that fund; to use that fund for other arts-related projects, at council’s discretion, if the new performing arts centre is not completed by 2026; and unfortunately write off all unpaid utility payments owed by ACTPA to the town under its previous lease of the old courthouse, police station, and library complex, for a total of $73,000. Coun.(s) Jack Brewin and Joe Strojwas voted in opposition to the motion.