By DON PEAT , Toronto Sun
After seven years of breathing easy, the Toronto Atmospheric Fund is facing its biggest challenge yet — political climate change at City Hall.
It was supposed to be standard business for the arm’s-length agency (TAF) recently when the organization’s executive director appeared before Mayor Rob Ford and his powerful executive committee to outline investments made while city councillors were off on the election trail.
Those transactions included a loan of $500,000 to the Pukwis Energy Co-operative to build a wind farm on Lake Simcoe and $300,000 to be invested by SolarShare in Penguin Power to install 20 solar tracking systems on leased rural Ontario locations.
But with a new right-leaning executive in place, the temperature jumped several degrees when it came time to discuss the loans and grants.
After a heavy round of questioning by several committee members, including Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, a review was ordered to see if the fund is meeting the goals councillors set when they took $23 million in taxpayers’ cash to start TAF 20 years ago.
Coun. Shelley Carroll, who leads TAF’s board of management, complained critics fail to realize the fund is doing good work which saves the city money.
She insisted that if the review is fair, TAF will survive intact.
However, during her first meeting with staff from the mayor’s office, she was questioned about the agency’s staffing levels.
Carroll said she has a queasy feeling about what’s coming.
“I’m ready to fight if what is really going on here is, ‘Sorry, it is great and all but we just need some cash,’” said Carroll.
“If that is what is going on here, that will be the most foolish transaction that the city has ever transacted … $23 million gone in a heartbeat versus leaving it there to find millions, ongoing, ever year.”
Councillor David Shiner — who pushed for the review — questioned why the fund is giving grants to projects to lobby other levels of government and to groups to conduct studies which he thinks are common sense.
“Why do we want to take taxpayers’ money to fund an organization to lobby the government?” he asked.
Shiner said he would like to keep funding in the city.
“To defend paying to install photo cells or small wind farms or energy conservation projects or studies that benefit areas outside of Toronto really doesn’t do what we should be doing for our taxpayers,” he insisted.
Based on the list of grants he saw earlier this month, Shiner said recipients received cash for a number studies where information already existed or were being conducted to confirm what amounts to common sense.
Holyday, meanwhile, said he’s not out to get the fund.
“I just think it’s time for a review, that fund has been in place for a while, it’s a large amount of money and I think that a review is in order,” Holyday said. “Even the auditor general, who is looking at (the fact) there is a city department that deals with environmental funding, is wondering himself whether or not there is duplication going on here.”
Holyday said TAF’s loan to the Lake Simcoe wind farm caught his attention.
“I just think someone has to look at this before we continue on down that road,” he said.
Behind City Hall, in TAF’s small office — a renovated Chinese restaurant — executive director Julia Langer argued environmental initiatives propelled by TAF have saved the city money.
“What we have is a value proposition that I think speaks for itself; we have an asset that has existed for 20 years and doesn’t cost the city anything,” she said. “To deliver savings, opportunities for being environmentally responsible, engaging huge numbers of people, that’s what we put forward and we always will be accountable to the city in terms of the asset and the privilege of offering this innovation and opportunity here.”
She noted that projects which provide better energy efficiency cut costs. Not all TAF’s projects are equally successful, Langer admitted.
“That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do them,” she said. “Certainly, we are operating within a budget, within a mandate, and I think we have an incredible track record of the grants that we’ve made over 20 years that have turned into really amazing projects and benefits for the city.”
TAF’s grants are only given to Toronto-based organizations to do local work while there are no geographical boundaries for its loans.
Past TAF grants have helped start pilot programs which proved green technology works and saved the city cash.
Langer noted projects conducted with Toronto Hydro on streets, in Toronto Community Housing buildings and even with the city’s traffic lights have helped make the case for lighting that uses less energy.
Loans have helped companies build condos that incorporate green technology.
Langer said she looks at the review as an opportunity to showcase her organization.