Are the losers in B.C.’s distribution of earnings from gaming smaller communities that don’t have casinos?

Are small towns getting a raw gaming deal?

Major capital project funding was cut from the list of categories allocated by the BC gaming branch

The Town of Ladysmith is drafting a resolution for the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities Annual General Meeting April 8 to 10 in Nanaimo, asking the province to reinstate major capital grants as one of the uses for B.C. gaming revenues.

Major capital project funding was cut from the list of categories allocated by the BC gaming branch after the 2008-2009 fiscal year. The year before $3.8 million had been awarded to communities throughout B.C.; in the final year $4.2 million.

The grants helped non-profit organizations build things like playgrounds and sports facilities, but were eliminated as part of the austerity measures introduced in response to the global recession that was pinching government revenues in 2008.

The recession is over; the decision to suspend major capital grants has not been reversed, even though they are still listed as a category in gaming grant application documents, flagged as discontinued ‘until further notice.’

Since 2008-2009 all gaming funds distributed to communities, except those that host casinos or community gaming centres, have been allocated for programs and services.

The explanation from the province for this decision is that community gaming grants are intended to help non-profits provide ‘programs and services’ that offer a ‘broad-based community benefit.’

Major capital projects have not been re-instated, goes the official line, because that would place increased pressure on the overall grants budget and would result in a reduction of the funds available for programs and services.

To some, though, it appears B.C. is playing a shell  game, shifting resources intended for community organizations increasingly toward programs and services that should be provided by the province out of general revenues.

Ladysmith Councillor Duck Paterson, who raised the issue of major capital funding at a March 7 council meeting, points to a September, 2009 letter from then Minister of Housing and Social Development Rich Coleman, which outlines the 2009-2010 gaming grant priorities.

The letter states “major capital project grants and playground grants will not be available.” Funding was to be focused on programs for ‘low income and disabled British Columbians’, ‘food and shelter for at risk individuals’, ‘community health services’, as well as a ‘limited number of arts and cultural activities.’

In 2009-2010 money allocated to BC gaming grants dropped from $160.1 million to $134.9 million, a level $2.9 million less than it was in 2005-2006. The amount allocated for gaming grants has not been increased since.

Paterson said the priorities listed by Coleman in 2009 certainly need to be funded, but they should be provided for as line budget items backing government policy, not taken out of gaming grants that have to be renewed – and not out of funding that community groups once used to leverage volunteer activity.

“They should stop and take a look at what they’re doing and start funding smaller communities,” he said.

In Ladysmith, for example, community groups have been trying to find funding to build a club-house at Forrest Field, but funding is hard to come by and volunteers get discouraged.

“You can’t raise the money needed for projects these days through pop-bottle drives,” he said. “If we were getting (major capital) gaming grants, there would be a club house at Forrest Field right now.”

He said that, as the lowest rung on the governance ladder, municipalities have had too many functions that should be funded by senior levels of government ‘land in our laps’, mostly for things related to social services.

Volunteers in smaller centres might be angry as well as discouraged if they made a comparison between what cities that host casinos get compared to them.

More than a billion dollars has been distributed to casino-hosting municipalities from gaming revenues since 1999. That’s over and above the B.C. Gaming Grants non-profit organizations in every B.C. municipality, including casino-hosting municipalities, can apply for.

Nanaimo, a city of 84,000, has received $43 million as its cut from the proceeds of its casino since 1999. Its 2014-15 installment was $2.49 million. Its non-profits also received $2.16 million in B.C. gaming grants. In total it pulled in $4.65 million from gaming revenue streams. Ladysmith non-profits, serving a town of 8,273, received $384,835.

The ratio of $55.23 per person in Nanaimo, compared to $46.52 for Ladysmith might not seem too skewed. But the positive impact on Nanaimo is amplified because:

• Its casino grant is a steady revenue stream that the city can use almost any way it chooses, and can plan for in its budgeting process;

• The city also benefits from the taxes it collects from the Nanaimo Casino property;

• Gamblers, who are drawn to the casino and spend money in Nanaimo, come from the region, not just the casino-hosting city, providing a boost to the economies of city’s like Nanaimo.

Which leads to questions.

Why should Fort St. John – a city of 20,000 – get enough money from its casino-funding to allow the construction of a three-story complex that includes two olympic sized ice rinks on the ground floor and a speed skating oval on the top floor, when Ladysmith can’t even get major capital funding for a new park on Transfer Beach?

Why shouldn’t smaller jurisdictions in B.C. have predictable, discretionary spending to carry out projects, when spending by their citizens in casinos helps generates the pot of gold casino-hosting municipalities get to divvy up?

Has the purpose of gaming funding been revisioned without adequate consultation?