By Trevor Busch
What should have a been good news story regarding nearly $860,000 in grant funding for the Town of Taber instead deteriorated into an indictment of administration and Mayor Andrew Prokop’s initial handling of the announcement. At the Nov. 2 special meeting, town council was informed of the Municipal Operating Support Transfer (MOST) program, a federal-provincial hybrid grant to support municipalities which have experienced significant operating impacts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Town of Taber has been allocated $858,411 in MOST funding.
Finance director John Orwa provided a detailed explanation of various COVID-19 related expenses and losses in revenue in 2020, and outlined that some $278,377 in MOST funding has already been earmarked.
Orwa explained the timeline behind the MOST funding from the province, with the grant announced on Sept. 21 and the agreement delivered to CAO Cory Armfelt to be signed before being passed on to Prokop, who signed the document on Sept. 28.
This sequence of events appeared to rankle Coun. Joe Strojwas.
“Normally when we get grant money, we get a copy of the letter sent out to us by email so that we know that this money is coming. But in this case we heard nothing. So what you’re saying is this was signed on September 28, and his worship signed it as well? Because I asked his worship in the middle of October about this, and he said he didn’t know anything about it. I need clarification from his worship about that, because that’s misleading to me.”
Prokop protested he hadn’t had the full details of the program at the time.
“No, I think I said I didn’t see the actual notification. That was an email sent somewhere around the end of
September. I think I said to you that I was aware that there was a something in the works, but I couldn’t remember exactly what was out there possibly. We sign a number of things on a monthly basis here. I can’t recall every single document.”
Strojwas indicated he had personally brought the matter to Prokop’s attention.
“Well, if you remember, your worship, I took a picture of it and sent it to you and all the other council members.”
Following this exchange, a chorus of councillors would eventually weigh in arguing Prokop and administration may have dropped the ball over the issue.
“I was also sort of surprised and nonplussed that council was not made aware of the fact that the Government of Alberta announced the program on September 21 by way of email, and that it wasn’t forwarded to council,” said Coun. Garth Bekkering. “I’m rather displeased about that.”
Municipalities can use MOST funding for incremental operating costs due to COVID-19 response, including PPE, communications, additional cleaning, supplemental staffing, additional supports for vulnerable populations, and a decrease or loss in revenue.
If councillors felt strongly enough about the issue of being informed, Armfelt suggested developing a policy would be the best way to alleviate concerns going forward.
“Given some councillors’ expression of displeasure, we would have to have a conversation about that then, because we get a lot of grants — John (Orwa) is very active in pursuing grants — and we get notice of a lot of grants that come into the municipality. We certainly don’t send those to council. This one was particularly different in the way that it came…it didn’t really come as a letter to council, as a letter to the municipality. It was posted on a portal where we can go in and see what the grants are, the status of things that we’ve applied for, MSI and those types of things on the municipal portal. So that was how we became aware of it. And then there was a rather brief email sent out to myself just to be aware that this was coming, and the documents came. This grant did not necessarily appear in a form where it was addressed to all of council. It came through an online portal that administration has access to, with documentation and those sorts of things. So that’s one maybe compounding challenge, if we dropped the ball it was maybe something that predicated that. But the other one is we certainly don’t send out all of the grants that we get, that we count as revenue to council, as a rule. So if there was a desire to set up a policy and procedure on that, then I would request council direct administration to do that.”
By far the harshest criticism would come from Coun. Louie Tams, who went so far as to suggest that council had been intentionally misled about the announcement of the MOST grant.
“I share Councillor Strojwas’ and Councillor Bekkering’s opinion on this grant and how council was notified. I think it’s kind of funny, because the MD of Taber had this big write up in the newspaper about MOST funding, and it took a councillor to go find it and inform the rest of council. An $858,000 grant is not a small grant — I get it when we’re talking about the $5,000 and $10,000 grants when we’re not notified — but every big grant that we’ve ever got since I’ve been on council so far we’re informed with an email that we got this big grant. This one didn’t just slip through the cracks, I feel it was purposely not told to us. And that feeling isn’t leaving me, and the more I hear about it, I’m still feeling that way — we have been purposely mislead about this grant because it’s budget time, and let’s not talk about it. I personally don’t like it, and if we have to have a policy that we are informed about grants — we always have been, other than the small ones — I think it’s downright disgusting that we weren’t.”
Coun. Mark Garner was more concerned about the citizens of the community being left uninformed of what he termed a “good news story” for the municipality.
“I would echo the sentiment that’s kind of permeating the air right now. We’re pretty diligent in posting good news stories, whether it be the walking paths or whatever, and this was a pretty big good news story to the tune of $858,000. Yes it should have come to us, but I think the bigger thing that bothers me is it has never officially come to the people of the town of Taber. It’s never been officially announced to them…to my knowledge.”
Armfelt attempted to refute allegations there was anything unto- ward about administration’s handling of the MOST program announcement.
“It certainly wasn’t deliberately not shared with council. We’re using the protocols that we normally do. This is still an administrative act in my opinion; we haven’t received any grant funding, so there’s really nothing to celebrate yet until Mr. Orwa does all of his work and we actually get some funding. So there’s been a promise of money, but there certainly hasn’t been any money that has been deposited yet until we do our work. The suggestion that we were deliberately keeping it from council I take some exception with, because Mr. Orwa was going to share this with the audit committee — where this stuff goes — at the next audit committee meeting. It certainly wasn’t the intention of administration to withhold this information from you, it was just a bit of administrative business that we get that we do like every other bit of administrative business that we do. When there’s something to share, when there’s good news to share, we certainly share it. But the good news is a little pre-emptive as of yet, I would suggest, because we haven’t actually settled on any money coming into the municipality on this.”
Defending himself against an assault coming from all sides, Prokop echoed Armfelt’s explanation and concluded a policy approach might alleviate further concerns.
“In this case, I saw that email after Councillor Strojwas looking into it came to myself and the CAO, that I didn’t see at that time. Again, it’s a number of emails that we get there and I don’t open every single one. If I see the caption and it doesn’t mean anything to me, quite often I don’t open that particular one if it’s a general announcement. But in that case I missed that; I wasn’t aware of what that one was. To answer Councillor Strojwas, I think you have to be fair and reasonable about what’s involved here. I don’t think anything is intentionally misleading here. There’s a combination of things involved here, and a number of things as per other local residents that were passing on things to us for other businesses that could help, that myself and the CAO had many discussions about also, again some which did or didn’t come to fruition. There’s just so many things involved here, I don’t know what more we can do, other than what Mr. Armfelt has suggested to have a formal policy that may help down the road.”
A lone defender in Coun. Jack Brewin would support Prokop’s position, suggesting the matter was much ado about nothing.
“I actually agree with you, Andrew, I think I would have signed it, too. It’s money that we may get, we’re not guaranteed it. We tell administration to go out and find all the grants available, get the money they can, they found this you signed it. If we had met about it would we have argued about signing it? I don’t think so, so I really have no issue with this whatsoever.”
MOST funding may only be used for eligible operating expenses, losses or deficits incurred between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021. Any funds not used for eligible expenses incurred before March 31, 2021 must be returned.
Following discussion, council voted unanimously to accept the Municipal Operating Support Transfer (MOST) program guidelines and allocation for information.