Editorial: With taxpayers' money, let's take nothing for granted
Published: June 3, 2018
Updated: June 3, 2018 7:00 AM EDT
Coun. Catherine McKenney is asking some tough questions about the Windmill plan.Jean Levac / Postmedia
It was encouraging this week to see tough questions being asked at city hall about a developer’s bid for a multimillion-dollar grant.
Not because the grant is a bad idea, but, rather, because scrutiny over the use of taxpayers’ money is one of the most important jobs we expect our politicians to perform.
In this particular case, Windmill Developments, which is planning to build the Zibi community on the Chaudière and Albert islands, is seeking more than $60 million through a city grant program that was designed to help clean up contaminated land and deteriorating buildings.
But Windmill’s $60-million “ask” has raised some eyebrows. For perspective: The grand total of all such grants disbursed since 2007 has been $67.8 million.
There are good reasons the program exists in the first place. It’s meant to encourage development, which we wholeheartedly support.
And the scope and vision of the Zibi project, as advertised so far, has been impressive and inspiring.
Furthermore, Windmill certainly cannot be faulted for seeking to take advantage of a program that already exists.
But when the tab reaches $60 million, the request must be given real scrutiny.
Some have questioned the precedent being set. Take for example LeBreton Flats and the ambitious project envisioned there between RendezVous LeBreton and the NCC. It’s likely taxpayers will be asked to help clean up parts of the LeBreton Flats site before re-development. How many millions might that project cost in grant money to reimburse remediation efforts?
There are many other ways such money could be spent. More police officers, fewer potholes, to name the most obvious of ideas.
Downtown Coun. Catherine McKenney is asking some tough questions about the Windmill plan. “It’s time to do a refresh and consider, ‘Is this something taxpayers should be picking up when a developer purchases land?’ That needs to be built into price of the property,” she said this week.
McKenney is particularly piqued because of a uniquely Ottawa conundrum — the federal government owned about 20 per cent of the site, and McKenney has suggested that level of government should foot the bill. (The feds, for their part, say the property wasn’t contaminated by federal facilities.)
Mayor Jim Watson has said the Windmill project will have economic benefits for this city and that, in 12 years, the additional property taxes will trump the city’s grant money.
Those are good numbers, and there’s nothing wrong with investing if we know it will pay a dividend.
But, as council weighs the grant application this week, it should do so seriously, looking at the costs, the benefits, the precedents being set and the best value for the taxpayers’ dollars, with whose stewardship they are entrusted.