The Thompson-Nicola Regional District board wants to decide in the fall whether to spend hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 relief funds to construct a new multi-purpose meeting space, including use for board meetings.
During a committee of the whole meeting on Friday, April 23, the board voted to recommend deferral of a decision to spend $412,000 of COVID-19 Safe Restart funds for construction of a new multi-purpose meeting space in its building, located in downtown Kamloops at Victoria Street and Fifth Avenue.
The TNRD Building is also home to the Kamloops Art Gallery and Kamloops Library.
The board is recommending deferral of a decision until the fall. The decision will be ratified at a future meeting. The recommendation was carried unanimously.
TNRD area I (Blue Sky Country) director Steven Rice questioned why COVID-19 relief funds would be used in such a scenario, noting the optics.
TNRD CAO Scott Hildebrand said the regional district spends $4,000 monthly renting space at Sandman Centre to host meetings during the pandemic, noting the regional district is growing, necessitating a new multi-use meeting space post-pandemic. The proposed plan is to build a multi-purpose meeting space on the second floor of the library for use by the board and library. In addition, it would be rented out to external groups/committees as a way to generate revenue.
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The TNRD has also applied for $2.4 million in provincial COVID-19 infrastructure funding for upgrades to its building, through the COVID-19 Resilience Infrastructure Stream.
Prior to the pandemic, the board met on the fourth floor in the TNRD Building.
Director Mike O’Reilly, a Kamloops councillor, said the regional district should not need more physical space at a time when digital meeting attendance has become the norm.
(Several directors, as well as the public and media, had logged on virtually for the committee meeting via Zoom.)
O’Reilly said he would not be in favour of spending the money on the meeting room. He said the regional district should figure out a way to make its current meeting space work.
“We have the Taj Mahal at the TNRD, compared to what we have at the City of Kamloops,” O’Reilly said, arguing using the money on construction of a new board room would not be a proper use of the funds.
TNRD staff explained other regional districts have used the money for similar purposes and that the funding decisions are at the discretion to the board, due to a variety of different circumstances that could arise during the pandemic.
Sun Peaks Mayor Al Raine expressed concern about using the funds for purposes other than COVID-19 relief. Director Arjun Singh, a Kamloops councillors, said the province is not likely to claw back dollars, but added it is important for directors to be able to explain to constituents how COVID-19 relief funds are used in ways that are connected to the pandemic.
The TNRD has received a total of $1.4 million in COVID-19 Safe Restart money, of which about half ($735,000) has been allocated for technology upgrades, personal protective equipment, volunteer fire department equipment and funding to rural areas.
In addition to funding for meeting space, the board was asked to discuss $150,000 from the pot in additional funding to electoral areas for use at their discretion. Previously, $100,000 had been allotted for the same purpose.
Director Kathy Sinclair, a Kamloops councillor, said she would like to have business cases proposed for such funds, rather than allocating the dollars for use to areas equally ($25,000 each, for the combined $250,000) at discretion of area directors.
“I think we need some more rigour around this process,” Sinclair said. “And, as a board, we are collectively responsible for financial oversight and I’m not comfortable with the current proposal, where we’re perhaps giving each area equal amount. I need to see the cases for the need for support. There may be one area that’s been harder hit than others.”
Sinclair said she was presented with a list of worthy groups in need of support, but noted no details were provided.
“I don’t want to be approving or signing off on something after the fact,” she said. “I think it’s important for the board to see where the funding is going because we’re accountable for this and we need to report on this at the end of the day.”
Director Dale Bass, a Kamloops councillor agreed, adding she believes the public would also like to know how the money is being spent in a time when increased accountability and transparency are important at the regional district.
A day before the committee of the whole meeting, the TNRD board announced it had selected BDO Canada LLP to carry out a forensic audit and financial review of the regional district’s financial records and expenses.
The review comes as a result of a KTW investigation into spending at the TNRD from 2015 to January 2020 via the regional district-issued credit card of then-CAO Sukh Gill. Receipts from that time period show numerous charges for parties and to coffee shops, high-end restaurants, wineries, luxury hotels and liquor stores.
Gill left the regional district suddenly in February 2020 with a $500,000-plus payout and a legal agreement mandating his exit be called a “retirement.”
In addition, on March 26 of this year, the TNRD forwarded to the RCMP information concerning potential financial irregularities at the regional district.
At Friday’s meeting, some directors argued bringing forward proposals for the COVID-19 relief funding would slow down the process.
Singh said directors have the best sense of what is happening in their areas and that they have been responsible with funding in the past.
“The board has never really gotten in the way of that,” Singh said.
Opposed to the $150,000 for electoral areas were Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell, O’Reilly and Sinclair.
The board also voted to allocate $179,000 toward economic recovery and other services, with Bass, Rice, Blackwell, Area J (Copper Desert Country) director Ronaye Elliott, Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman and Area E (Bonaparte Plateau) director Sally Watson opposed. O’Reilly said allocating funding for economic recovery will help in the long-term, compared to additional quicker Band-Aid solutions.
“This is a longer-term strategic investment in economic development in the entire region,” he said.
As noted by Area B (Thompson Headwaters) director Stephen Quinn, criteria for use of provincial COVID-19 Start Restart grant funds leaves the door “wide open for innovative thinking.” Staff presented the aforementioned proposed spending of such funds.
Meanwhile, other ideas were proposed, but not implemented, on Friday morning:
• Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian suggested utilizing the funds to help lower taxes at a time when many people have been struggling. The board heard the funds are not allowed to be used to lower taxes. Christian noted, however, that Kamloops used such funds not directly to lower the mill rate, but to offset certain lost revenues. Subsequently, the city was able to provide taxpayers in 2021 with the lowest tax increase in several years.
• Singh suggested aiding the tourism industry, which has been hurting during the pandemic. He said the funds could help attract people to the region, such as installing signage.
Recommendations from the committee of the whole meeting will go to the board for ratification at a future meeting.