Monday, June 20, 2011

Taxpayers on hook for any Art Gallery of Saskatchewan fundraising shortfall; Public open-house and online survey an insulting sham

Saskatoon taxpayers had better hope that Art Gallery of Saskatchewan capital campaign chair Doug Hodson finds the remaining $5 million needed to reach the current fundraising goal of $20 million, otherwise they will be on the hook for it.

Infrastructure Canada’s project review report, dated June 2010, for the new art gallery shows that city administration told federal officials more than a year ago that it would cover any shortfall in the original fundraising target.

“Should the City of Saskatoon not be successful in reaching their fundraising target of $8,000,000, they have confirmed that they will borrow the necessary funding to make up for any shortfall,” the report states. “The City notes that it has sufficient debt limit to borrow additional money if required.”

The city failed to share this information with the public.

It’s a slap in the face to other non-profit organizations in the city that fundraise the hard way, one dollar at a time. Who could possibly compete with the city’s seemingly endless capacity to borrow?

The Mendel Art Gallery never received this kind of special treatment. The gallery was expected to raise its share to help pay for expansion and renovation plans.

On December 12, 2005, city council approved the Mendel expansion subject to “confirmation that all fund raising and third-party grants for the total project are in place or committed, based on independent audit verification.”

In a report to the budget committee on December 5, 2005, corporate services general manager Marlys Bilanski said that because the Mendel is a city-owned facility, council is responsible for all renovations and/or expansions. Accordingly, council needs to be assured that all funding is in place prior to awarding construction contracts, as the city will be liable for all contract payments.

“Therefore, your administration is recommending that the contracts not be issued prior to verification of receipt of all funding/funding commitments,” Bilanski said.

Administration also recommended that verification of fundraising commitments should be sought from the Mendel board, with concurrence from an independent source (i.e. the city’s internal auditor), including information and processes around projected pledge defaults.

There was no talk of a bailout from city hall if efforts failed. In fact, the Mendel’s 2007-2011 Business Plan Capital Expansion Program (September 5, 2007) notes that should the gallery’s plan to raise public and corporate funds for the renovation and expansion project be unsuccessful, “the Board and senior management will be required to source additional potential funding sources immediately.”

At the time of the federal report, the gallery had raised $600,000 in cash and pledges. However, most, if not all, of these funds were from supporters thinking they were donating to the gallery’s expansion.

A timeline submitted by the city to federal officials last year shows the project going to tender in March 2012 with construction of the underground parking beginning in June 2012 and the gallery itself in January 2013.

This would mean that Hodson has just over eight months to raise $5 million before the construction bid tender is issued. It will be interesting to see if council follows through on its promise to backstop any shortfall prior to that.

The federal report also reveals that the city intended to cover any resulting shortfall had the Saskatchewan Party government turned down its request to redirect the $4,092,877 previously committed to the Mendel expansion under the Building Communities Program (a provincial program that provides funding for culture and recreation facility projects) to the new art gallery.

“Should the City of Saskatoon not be successful in obtaining this funding, they have confirmed that they will borrow the necessary funding to make up for nay shortfall,” the report states.

City manager Murray Totland and Mendel CEO Vincent Varga had written to Tourism, Parks, Culture and Sport deputy minister Wynne Young on November 16, 2009, to formally request that the BCP commitment for the Mendel project be reallocated to the new gallery.

Totland and Varga met with Young on March 15, 2010, in Regina. At the meeting, Ms. Young confirmed verbally that moving the money from the renovation project to the new gallery project would not be an issue.

The provincial cabinet approved the city’s request through an order-in-council on September 2, 2010. However, since $1,023, 219.25 of the BCP money had already been spent on the Mendel, only $3,069,657.75 was available “for the capital development and construction” of the new gallery.

The key message in the federal report is that the city is responsible for any cost overruns and has basically guaranteed to cover any funding shortfalls. In short, the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan is being built on a blank cheque. Just like River Landing, the project is too big and too political to fail. Council will spend whatever it takes to get it done.

In a one-page briefing note, dated June 15, 2010, prepared for the Infrastructure Canada Project Review Panel, federal officials manage to offend those who oppose moving the Mendel to River Landing by saying, “These stakeholder concerns should be lessened by the creation of a permanent collection space that will showcase the 13 original paintings donated by Mr. Mendel.”

This is what happens when faceless bureaucrats in Ottawa make decisions that affect a community some 3,000 kilometers away. They’re generally clueless about local history. The only information they have is what city officials and Mendel management give them. It’s probably safe to say that some federal officials working on the file have never been to Saskatoon let alone visited the Mendel. They are ignorant of the fact that the Mendel building, the idyllic riverbank location, the Mendel name and story, and the paintings donated by the family are so deeply intertwined that they’re inseparable. Sadly, we’re dealing with people that either don’t understand the situation or just don’t care.

According to the federal report, once the Mendel closes it appears the non-profit organization that runs the gallery (the Saskatoon Gallery and Conservatory Corporation that was established by the city in 1967) will no longer exist: “While a final decision has not been made regarding the not-for-profit that currently manages the Mendel Art Gallery, the proponent has indicated that this group will likely be dissolved once the Mendel Gallery ceases to operate.”

If and when that happens, it will signal the final betrayal of the late Fred Mendel.

The public open-house scheduled for June 22, 2011, at TCU Place to view the concept drawings for the new art gallery is a bigger sham now than it was three weeks ago when it was first announced.

On May 30, 2011, council approved the schematic design concept for the new art gallery and underground parking. Councillors also gave the go-ahead for administration to proceed to the public input phase of the project, which was immediately rendered meaningless because it comes after the fact.

Council went a step further on June 13, 2011, when it instructed administration to proceed to complete the final design and construction drawings for the new gallery and parkade based upon the approved schematic concept design.

To say that the process is insulting is an understatement.

The Mendel board had already approved the design at a special in-camera meeting held March 27, 2011. The city’s executive committee, comprised of all councillors, did the same thing at a private meeting on May 16, 2011. The concept drawings themselves were developed behind closed doors.

The open-house consists of four parts: A short presentation by KPMB Architects; a Question and Answer period; viewing of the concept drawings; and, a survey for residents to leave comments on what they think of the new building.

An online survey is available at the Mendel website for those unable to make the open house. Some of the statements and questions include:
▪ The building design takes full advantage of views of the river.
▪ The building is welcoming.
▪ The design incorporates the features that interest me most.
▪ The Gallery will enhance the value of River Landing.
▪ What elements/aspects/features of the design of the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan do you like the most/least?
▪ Do you have any other comments?

Naturally, the survey does not ask people if they support moving the Mendel or whether they agree with spending $84 million on a new gallery when the existing facility can be upgraded for less than half the cost.

It doesn’t matter, though, because the survey is not statistically valid. Names are not required and respondents can make multiple submissions. It’s a farce.

Individuals answering the online survey are thanked for their time and told: “You [sic] input is very valuable to us.”

This is a load of crap. The public, the Mendel family, and most gallery donors and supporters were kept in the dark when the decision to move the gallery was secretly made in March 2009. From that point on the public has always been one step behind in the process. The only time input is sought is after decisions are made. That’s how much the city and current Mendel board value the public’s input.

The only reason the city could have for conducting a survey is to say that consultation occurred and to use the results as a propaganda tool to justify council’s decisions and promote the facility.

UPDATE: The city suffered a humiliating setback on June 22 when, according to the StarPhoenix, only 40 people attended the first of two open house sessions to view the schematic drawings for the new art gallery. The public was split between those with praise for the plans and those who took issue with them. [Public get peek at new gallery (StarPhoenix, June 23, 2011)]

Worthless survey, name not required


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