Budget 2016

Depending on who you listen to, Budget 2016 (a.k.a the Austerity Budget) is particularly hard on on seniors, youth, women, families, rural Newfoundland, Memorial University, the poor, the middle class, small business, writers, readers, drivers.... But what about heritage? 

Initial Reaction

The immediate response from our sector was a collective sigh of relief, triggered by news that there would be no cuts to CEDP operating grants to heritage organizations. Reason to celebrate? Absolutely, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Decisions regarding the acceptance of new entrants to CEDP and enforcement of the March 31, 2016 deadline for compliance to CEDP’s new minimum standards have still not been made. And without those decisions, everyone’s operating grant is in limbo. 

Let’s stop and think about this for a minute. Last year’s CEDP grants were not available until July and that was with an application deadline of April 1. Well, it’s now the first week of May and applications for operating grants haven’t even gone out. At this rate, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that heritage organizations may not see a cent of their operating grants until August or September. 

That delay could cause cash flow problems for visitor-focused organizations, whose expenses significantly increase with the onset of the tourist season. It could also lead to a loss of revenue. Lack of funds to pay staff salaries and/or provide matching funds for student work programs equals delayed openings and/or reduced operating hours. Lack of capital to purchase gift shop inventory means reduced sales and/or lower profit margins resulting from an over-reliance on consigned goods. 

If you’re concerned about potential delays in your CEDP operating grant it’s time to give your MHA a call. At last week’s AGM of the Bonavista Area Chamber of Commerce, Minister Mitchelmore responded to a question from the floor about CEDP funding by saying he understands the value of the program in providing operational support for heritage organizations, and he fully supports it. Horray! But to paraphrase French politician and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, deeds speak! 

The Long Game

I’ve heard various opinions within our sector regarding government’s motivation to maintain CEDP funding at its current levels. Some say it reflects government’s understanding of the value of heritage. Others claim the combined lobbying power of 115 CEDP recipient organizations represents a hornets’ nest that government isn’t interested in poking. Still others believe that CEDP is simply too small a pot to bother with. 

And me? At the risk of crying wolf, I like to suggest that the April 14th budget isn’t a reprieve for CEDP, but a temporary stay of judgement. On March 9, Finance Minister Cathy Bennett announced that $70 million of core funding provided by the province to community organizations will remain intact for the 2016-17 fiscal year. She also announced that during the next 12 months, government will undertake a  wholesale review of how organizations are spending that funding to ensure that public money is used wisely “as opposed to [being spent on] interest charges, administrative costs, rent and those kinds of things”. Similarly, in a March 11th meeting with nonprofit leaders, the Finance Minister stated that every organization currently receiving core funding from the province will be assessed as part of an overall “rationalization” of the nonprofit sector. 

Exactly how that process will shake out remains to be seen. In fact, no one within government seems to be able to explain the criteria against which organisations/funding programs will be assessed or the evidence required. We could just sit back and wait, but at the risk of crying wolf yet again, I’d like to suggest that we need to play a proactive role in this process. Remember that letter to your MHA about CEDP? Why not include a couple of questions about the upcoming nonprofit rationalization process, like what the heck is it and how should you prepare?

Beyond CEDP 

What else did Budget 2016 hold for heritage? The historic Harbour Grace Courthouse, a National Historic Site, will be closed. In an April 19th article in the Compass, provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons justified the closure by stating the 186-year old building requires millions of dollars of repairs. Will a sustainable new use be found for this significant heritage structure?

And speaking of heritage structures, according to a list of deferred infrastructure projects posted on the provincial government’s website, interpretation for the Colonial Building has been deferred indefinitely. However, in an April 24th article in the Telegram, Minister Mitchelmore stated the project is not on hold. Rather, restoration work will continue while the estimated $3 million needed for interpretation could be raised through a capital campaign led by the Rooms. 

Yup, that’s right ... a $3 million exhibit for the Colonial Building. Pretty staggering, right? Especially since the original budget estimate was somewhere around $800,000. The primary reason given for this whopping increase is the re-allocation of the Colonial Building’s ground floor from office space for MANL, ANLA and the NHS, to additional interpretive/exhibit space. Bigger exhibit equals bigger budget. 

No word yet if the Rooms is interested in collecting the necessary cash. And no word yet on the projected operating costs of the Colonial Building once it is completed and opened to the public. Considering the Provincial Historic Sites Division is currently down to just two full-time employees, the position of PHS Manager has been removed from the list of salaried positions for 2016/17, and the amount of deferred maintenance on the province’s existing 10 historic sites, there’s a very real question of whether government can afford another provincial historic site right now. Several months ago, I heard an unconfirmed rumor that, like the other provincial historic sites, the Colonial Building would be operated on a seasonal basis. Now that the Heritage Sector Associations have been officially evicted from the Colonial Building’s ground floor, that would mean the building would sit entirely empty from October - May.

The Rooms

And speaking of the Rooms .... in a move to save overall operating costs, the Rooms will be closed to the public on Tuesdays (in addition to the current Mondays) from September 15 to June 15. I’m guessing this will mean a reduction in hours for some front-line staff. Free Saturdays have been eliminated and free admission on Wednesdays has been reduced to one evening a month. 

Not sure what the motivation for this is. I’m assuming it’s revenue generation. It will be interesting to see whether people who currently visit during free admission days (approximately 40% of the Rooms total annual visitation!) will convert into paying visitors. I haven’t seen any data on this, but my hunch is that much of the visitation during free admission days consists of local residents making repeat visits. When faced with admission charges, will these folks cut back on Rooms visits or purchase a membership? An interesting U.S. study on museum visitation in tough economic times found that adults in their 20s and parents of children 8 and over were most likely to cut back on paid museum visits during economic downturns. If these findings hold, what will be the long-term implications for the Rooms if local young people drop out of the museum-going habit?

Back at BTCRD ....

The Provincial Historic Commemoration Program has been transferred from BTCRD to the Heritage Foundation of NL. This saves government $37,000 annually. I wonder what it will cost the HFNL to assume this responsibility ... a question made all the more germane since Budget 2016 reduced the HFNL’s annual operating grant by $52,400, or approximately 10%. 

BTCRD’s Director of Heritage has also been removed from government’s list of salaried positions for 2016/17. By all accounts, it seems the Director of Arts will be responsible for both arts and heritage, at least for the current fiscal year. This means the heritage sector no longer has a designated advocate at the senior level within BTCRD.  

And last, but absolutely not least, BTCRD’s Regional Development Fund was reduced by $1 million (roughly 13% of the total program budget). This funding program has two components: the Regional Development Program and the Community Capacity Building Program. The latter provides funding to community-based organizations for training in areas like governance, strategic planning, and relationship building. Remember that fantastic project management workshop at the MANL annual conference last year? Funded by the Community Capacity Building Program. 

The Regional Development Program (RDP) provides funding for infrastructure, marketing and research projects primarily to organizations operating beyond the overpass. I was recently told by someone inside BTCRD that roughly 40% of RDP funding goes to projects in the cultural sector. If that’s correct, we’ve lost up to $400,000 in funding to arts and heritage. Now, let’s consider that the vast majority of RDP projects are cost shared with ACOA (the typical arrangement is 45% RDP, 45% ACOA and 10% applicant). That means we’ve not only lost $400,000 in provincial funding, but potentially another $400,000 in matching Federal funds. That’s a whopping loss of $800,000 in project funding. $800K!!! If you’re sitting in St. John’s, you likely won’t understand why I’m getting so worked up about this. But if you’re running an anchor attraction in rural Newfoundland .... well, I’m pretty sure you get where I’m coming from.