Council denies AFFNO request for in-kind donation for Sugar Shack Festival

City Council says decides against essentially waiving the cost of renting the civic centre for the Sugar Shack Festival.

The city of Prince Rupert has decided that it will not be granting the Association des Francophone et Francophile du Nord-Ouest’s (AFFNO) request that would have effectively waived the cost of renting the civic centre for the group’s yearly Sugar Shack Festival.

“I couldn’t find anything to my mind that justified approving the additional grant,” says the City’s chief financial officer, Dan Rodin.

Late last month representatives of the French culture organization came to city council asking for the city to change the way it contributes money to the festival, which has been held in Prince Rupert for the past two years.

Instead of having AFFNO apply for and receive a fixed amount of money through the City’s yearly community enhancement grant process, the group wanted to go back to the system they worked under the first year the festival was held. That is, receiving an in-kind donation from the City for the cost of renting the civic centre for a day. Under this set up, the City just absorbs the cost of running the civic centre instead of giving out money.

But the council decided on Monday that AFFNO will have to continue working through the community enhancement grant system like other community groups.

“I certainly don’t think the contribution the Sugar Shack makes to the community is small, it’s a wonderful thing they do . . . but I do think we have to be fair. I don’t think that one group coming in and asking us – when we’ve already made a decision – for more money is fair,” says councilor Joy Thorkelson.

Last year, AFFNO requested a total of $1,000 from the city, enough to cover $906.45 cost of renting the civic centre for Sugar Shack. Council granted them only $500 leaving the group scrambling to find a way to pay off the remainder.

AFFNO has argued that the City’s contribution is important evidence of community support, which is something the group must prove to Heritage Canada when applying for funding. The feds provided $20,000 towards the 2012 Sugar Shack Festival, about 80 percent of the event’s total budget.

The group is worried that by cutting back their contribution the council is making it harder for AFFNO to show that the event has community support. To address this, the council decided that they will send a letter to Heritage Canada explaining its support for the event, but its inability to spend much money on it.

“That support letter may help, but it isn’t the money per se that is the biggest concern. But it has to look like the city or community where you hold something like this support it. Whether that means in-kind support for the civic centre or when we used to do it in Kitimat, the City of Kitimat provided us with a donation of $3,700 for example,” says AFFNO’s executive director, Patrick Witwicki.

The 2013 Sugar Shack Festival will be going ahead as planned because the money for it has already been applied for, but Witwicki says that council’s decision has made the prospect of having a festival every year in Prince Rupert after that more uncertain.

“It won’t affect this year, but what it does after 2013, I honestly can’t say. It will be up to our board. Since we’re a regional organization, we may – I say it ‘may’ – move it to another community in our region,” says Witwicki.

There are a couple reasons why the city council has decided not to grant AFFNO’s request. The first being that by doing so, they would be giving AFFNO special treatment that they aren’t giving to other community groups that have asked the City for money. By doing so, they may encourage other groups who weren’t happy with their community enhancement grants to come to council asking for a change as well. This is something council badly wants to avoid.

Another reason is that council has an AFFNO balance sheet from 2011 that shows that the organization ended that fiscal year with surplus of about $13,463. City staff and councilors both felt that the $400 shortfall from the 2012 festival should be covered with this money.

“I think we need to hold our ground here. The thing that really tipped it for me is that there is money in a surplus I was not aware of,” says Anna Ashley.

AFFNO, on the other hand, says that this surplus doesn’t exist.

AFFNO’s president, Danielle Dalton, says that the balance sheet showing the large surplus can’t be applied to the cost of the 2012 Sugar Shack Festival.

She insists that all the money budgeted towards other projects. Money is so tight at AFFNO that last July (three months after the balance sheet was written up), the group had to lay off Witwicki, their only paid employee, for that month to save money.

If AFFNO had thousands of dollars just lying around, says Dalton, why would it have been necessary to stop paying Witwicki for an entire month?

Dalton says that given the information they had, she understands why the council made the decision they did, but is disappointed that it’s boiling down to money. AFFNO, she says, is just looking for an assurance that it can always have the civic centre for one day a year, which she believes wouldn’t cost the City all that much since they have volunteers to do all the work.

To pay the remaining $400 on the cost of the civic centre, Witwicki will likely have to take another week without pay.