John Howard Society under scrutiny at City Hall

Iqaluit council wants to know where bingo money goes

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

GREG YOUNGER-LEWIS

The charity work done by the John Howard Society hangs in the balance as Iqaluit city council reviews the group’s books to find out how they spend profits from their lucrative weekly bingo.

At a council meeting on Tuesday, employees from the non-profit organization questioned the councilors’ motives in recently shortening the term-length of the group’s bingo licence to two months, suggesting they had been singled out.

“The society has nothing to hide,” said Leetia Nowdluk, the group’s secretary, during a presentation to council.

The issue arose after members of the John Howard Society received a notice from the city hall’s by-law department saying their bingo licence had been renewed for only two months, instead of the regular six-month interval.

The group responded by submitting their most recent financial audit to council.

Mayor Elisapee Sheutiapik told the group that they would still have to wait until December before finding out if their licence would be renewed.

“We’re interested in finding out… what these funds are used for,” Sheutiapik said in Inuktitut. “I’ve never really understood if you’ve followed the acts and regulations and by-laws [covering bingo licences].”

Until now, the popular weekly TV bingo was bringing in about $700,000 a year, according to March 2004 financial statements prepared by the Iqaluit-based accounting firm, MacKay Landau.

Of that, the society spends about $400,000 to run the bingos every year, producing a surplus of about $300,000 a year.

The bingos are, by far, the organization’s biggest source of cash. They receive only about $70,000 from other sources.

An estimated $186,897 in salaries and wages makes up more than half the expenses; the next largest expense is program supplies, valued at $30,598. More than $20,000 is spent on professional fees, while each other major expense, such as rent, travel, and telecommunications, totals around $10,000 to $15,000.

But the audit explains little about the actual activities and programs offered by the group.

Sheutiapik said the group’s spending was called into question as part of the City’s efforts to bring their by-laws more into line with federal and territorial lottery and registry laws.

She added that other groups’ licences were being reviewed, although she declined to name them.

When asked whether agencies that use Nevada tickets were facing similar scrutiny, deputy mayor Chris Wilson suggested that council not answer the question, to avoid turning the issue into a “he-said, she-said” affair.

“The by-laws are applicable to everyone,” Wilson said, adding that he thought the review of the John Howard Society was a “non-issue.”

The financial statements given to council shed some light on the group’s operations, but say little about how much money is spent on programs.

Mario Desforges, program manager for the society, told council that the group runs a number of services, including teaching judo to more than 500 kids in Iqaluit every week. He said the classes are part of the group’s crime prevention strategy and teach anger management to disadvantaged children, who come from troubled backgrounds.

“I’m a very honest man, I never steal from nobody,” Desforges said. “I check that every penny is spent in a good way for the betterment of the community.”

He said the group also offers delivers country food to Inuit prisoners in the South, and helps them celebrate special occasions like Nunavut Day and Christmas.

Locally, the group gives food vouchers to families and individuals who need food, often due to alcohol problems in their homes.

By the end of the meeting, council declined to give the group a firm date on how soon they would know whether they’d be getting another bingo licence.

But one councillor hoped it would be sooner, instead of later.

“I feel an urgency to resolve this issue,” Stu Kennedy said. “I believe this society deserves a firm answer.”

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