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City kills AIDS programs

Queer groups implore councillors to spare services

EVIDENCE OVER IDEOLOGY. Protestors cheer for a clean crack pipe program Feb 19. The ACO project helps users switch from needles to pipes and from sharing equipment to using one's own. Credit: Marcus McCann

Nearly $30,000 in city funding has already evaporated for two programs helping people living with AIDS, and there’s at least one more program under the knife, according to AIDS organizers.

One program gives people access to a fridge or freezer to store their complex antiretroviral drug regimes and provides clients with a healthy snack to take with their meds. It’s especially helpful to those who are homeless or couch surfing, because it give them secure access to their medication seven days a week. The AIDS Committee Of Ottawa secured $14,760 for the pilot program, which lasted six months, according to Kathleen Cummings, but that money will not be renewed.

Meanwhile city hall has been cranking through dozens of five-minute public presentations each day, trying to hear from every social service group that has asked to speak with them. In the year when Mayor Larry O’Brien proposed deep annual cuts to freeze taxes for four years, the length of time for budget consultation has shrunk to just three weeks in the lead up to final budget decisions Feb 26, 27, and 28.

“From what we know, our core funding is not in jeopardy at this time,” says Cummings. The city gave ACO $55,551 last year in core funding, which is about 10 percent of the group’s budget.

But in addition to the maximum assisted therapy program, as the drug access pilot was called, ACO has also lost $11,760 for the nutritional meal program, which is equal to about half the money the organization spent securing healthy groceries for clients.

The city’s crack pipe program is also under threat.

“From what we know, the mayor isn’t going to go after the program in the budget process,” says Cummings. She guesses it’s more likely to be attacked in a policy review later in the year.

“Prevention is a continuum. We know from this city and from other cities that this approach works. Of the four pillars — enforcement, prevention, treatment, and harm reduction — the total harm reduction expenditure is $58,000,” making it the least funded strategy of dealing with drug use. The crack pipe program gets just $2,500 in city funding, yet has reduced HIV transmissions among crack users from 39 to 12 per year.

AIDS Committee Of Ottawa spokesman Khaled Salam made the case for harm reduction to council on Feb 19. Mayor O’Brien, who made killing pipe distribution an election promise, was not present when Salam spoke.

The following morning Pink Triangle Services got its five minutes in front of council. Jeff Atkinson from PTS justified the funds it receives and asked for an additional $40,000.

“Family support services, depression counselling, support for our seniors: many of our clients, youth, seniors, low and middle income families and individuals rely on other city services, affordable housing, recreation, health and mental health, transit and of course the many community health resource centres. Any cuts or increase in user fees will affect them the most,” Atkinson told council on Feb 20.

Those two organizations followed Capital Pride, who spoke to city councillors Feb 1 about cash for the city’s beleaguered festivals.

A recommendation to establish $2.5 million over four years in stable funding for arts and cultural spending will be included in the budget discussion at the end of the month. It has been passed by councillors twice already (Feb 1 and 14), but that doesn’t guarantee its implementation.

And even if the dollars are approved, it doesn’t outright guarantee Pride increased funding. But an increase in funding will have the greatest impact on medium-sized festivals like Pride, says Pride board member Marion Steele.

Currently, a few large festivals carve up the bulk of the funding pie; so the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival gets more than $100,000 and Capital Pride just $1000.

In 2006, the majority of city councillors voted against giving $20,000 in emergency funding to Pride after it had approved $50,000 for the Tulip Festival and $75,000 for the Franco-Ontarien festival. Under the proposal now being considered, the funding will be handled administratively, out of a bigger envelope, “so we won’t have to come crawling to council every year,” says Steele.

“Had it not been for the generosity of a business that stepped up to the plate at the 11th hour, there would not have been a Pride Festival or Pride Parade here in Ottawa last year.”

Pride continues to face a cash shortage and a $160,000 deficit. “We’re facing all the same hurdles we were last year; nothing has changed.”

The committee passed a dozen recommendations, including that $1.5 million for arts and festivals be included in 2007’s budget, with $650,000 earmarked for festivals. The committee also recommended that staff continue “tracking ‘in-kind’ services and ‘invoiced’ services in 2007 to provide an analysis and a report back prior to the 2008 budget respecting a possible policy change that could see city hall donating some services such as police, ambulance and garbage collection to festivals.

As groups plead for nickels and dimes in funding, council may be preparing a revolution in how services are delivered in Ottawa, warns Rick Barnes of PTS.

On Feb 1, Councillor Maria McRae tried to pass a motion at the Community and Protective Services committee that would have asked council to consider shifting social spending out of its own jurisdiction and to the United Way.

“The potential is very dangerous,” says Barnes, because it makes it easier for councillors to freeze spending and blame third-party administration if an organization can’t get the cash it needs to function. It’s especially dangerous for organizations like PTS and ACO, he adds.

“It offloads the responsibility for tax dollars to an unelected group,” says Barnes.

That motion was defeated at the committee level; it is scheduled to resurface Feb 23 at a full meeting of council.