City staff want to cancel a program that covers insurance for 124 community associations but also has raised cries of unfairness from others stuck paying their own premiums.
A staff report recommends council redirect the $234,000 budget to a grant program open to a wide range of organizations, including to cover the costs of civic events.
But Alex Cullen, a former city councillor and past president of the Federation of Citizens’ Associations, said the proposed solution puts community activities at risk, forcing everyone to supply their own insurance and hope the city grant will cover it.
“Everyone loses,” said Cullen. “That’s why we say it’s a step backwards. It’s the wrong way to deal with an inequitable situation.”
Community organizations need insurance to do just about anything, from running events in city parks to applying for grants. For the Champlain Park Community Association, insurance covers sleigh rides, winter carnivals and fun runs in the neighbourhood and it was lucky to receive city-paid premiums.
Co-chair Lynne Bankier said losing that support will limit what her organization can do.
“We’ll have to go to the private market to find insurance,” she said. “That’s a very tough market. They’re not keen on funding community-based groups like ours.”
It’s the wrong way to deal with an inequitable situation.– Alex Cullen
Bankier said the city’s plan to shift the money won’t replace reliable insurance coverage, especially since the framework is open to much larger social service agencies such as food banks, which have dedicated staff and are better able to meet the city’s equity-focused priorities.
“We do things that will bring the community together, foster community spirit, but on a much smaller level,” she said.
‘Welcome to our world’
City staff say the existing program, known as the Community Partners Insurance Program (CPIP), is no longer viable and increasingly expensive. They say it’s “unique” among large Ontario municipalities.
It dates back to amalgamation. The municipalities that formed Ottawa had differing policies for their community associations, with some cities paying their premiums for commercial and general liability insurance, and others not.
In 2001, council voted to lock in the status quo, creating a two-tiered system. As insurance costs shot up in recent years, some community groups were insulated while others, such as the Overbrook Community Association, were on the hook.
Former president Heather Amys said annual premiums on the private market cost the group about $1,200 to $1,300. She has a simple message for those associations dreading the costs if the current program ends.
“Welcome to our world,” she said. “This is what the rest of us have been dealing with.”
Amys said to expect stiff competition for the funds, but said it’s much fairer than the existing system.
“My position has always been, this is insanely inequitable and it blew my mind that it had gone on for 20 years,” she said.
Amys does support one recommendation in the staff report that would see staff examine city requirements for groups to carry insurance, with an eye to potentially reducing the burden.
This is insanely inequitable and it blew my mind that it had gone on for 20 years.– Heather Amys
She cited a case where the city asked the Overbrook Community Association to carry $5 million of insurance to do weeding on the edge of a dead-end street, though it later reduced the requirement to $2 million. The same thing happened when the association looked to put up a sign celebrating the neighbourhood’s history.
“That is what keeps communities from getting out there and doing these things,” she said.
‘Where true democracy happens’
Staff say insurance providers have shown little interest in underwriting CPIP. With less competition, premiums and deductibles are rising, and the report warns it might not be possible to find an insurer going forward. That could end the program all on its own.
Staff say expanding the program could make costs skyrocket since there’s no legal definition of a “community association,” and potentially thousands of groups could qualify.
Cullen disagrees, saying reasonable eligibility criteria should be drawn up to limit the pool to about 200 to 300 neighbourhood-focused community associations. He noted the city also covers premiums for ice rinks, and the report makes no recommendation to axe that.
“Insurance is expensive,” he said. “It’s hard to qualify for. And here’s the city with a much larger capacity to absorb these costs. We’re willing to do our part. We’d like to see the city’s in our corner, and this is not helpful.”
College ward Coun. Laine Johnson, who has previously spoken out about the unfairness of the existing program, said like Amys, she’s interested in seeing how city policies can be adjusted to ease the burden.
“I don’t want the City of Ottawa’s risk-averse processes to choke out any good energy coming from communities,” Johnson said.
She said a vibrant network of community associations representing Ottawa’s neighbourhoods is vital for local democracy.
“Community organizing, in any form, is where true democracy happens,” she said. “That’s where neighbours are meeting neighbours and sharing their voice. Without those community groups, my job becomes a lot harder.”