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Why council should be really, really mad

City council should be spittin’ mad. The people who elected them certainly are.

The public is understandably upset with news this week that the new firehall, currently under construction on Massey Drive, is $2 million over budget. On the original $15 million project, that’s 13.3 per cent.

While the public is upset for the overspending, council should be upset that the entire design of the project changed and council was kept in the dark for probably close to a year. In fairness, at least some of them are concerned.

But city council should be really upset that staff decided, apparently without informing council, to add 5,000 sqare feet to the facility. It was originally supposed to be 21,000 square feet and now it will be 26,000 square feet because the original size wasn’t enough space to adequately accommodate the fire dispatch centre and mechanical room. (Forget for a minute that we paid HCMA Architects and Planning of Vancouver and L&M Engineering of Prince George to design the replacement for $1.1 million and that the engineering firm, which at the time had little experience design fire operations centres, wasn’t at the table when the architects did the design work.)

The concrete was poured on the new firehall last October. That means sometime before then, the city would have gone back to HCMA Architects and/or L&M Engineering to adjust the original plans. That likely would have been months prior to the pouring of the foundation in October, which means city staff likely decided to increase the footprint of the building about a year ago. One of the reasons for the adjustment, according to Adam Homes, the city’s director of infrastructure and public works, was that the city started to award work on the facility before the final design was completed.

OK, let’s get back to how this can happen without council knowing.

It all comes down to how much city manager Kathleen Soltis can spend without having to ask council’s approval. It used to be $1 million. About a year ago council, Soltis said that’s a little too restrictive and council changed the policy to five per cent of the operating budget.

According to Coun. Cori Ramsay, that’s honing in on the $10 million range. So, to put things in perspective, it is completely within Soltis’ authority to, in theory, completely redesign the firehall and almost double the budget … all without telling city council until it comes up in a major project review that comes before council a couple of times a year (Coun. Terri McConnachie suggested getting these reviews before council quarterly instead of every six months, which is a good idea).

Ramsay made a motion to go back to a flat approval number for Soltis of $2 million, which would address some of the restrictiveness of the original $1 million figure. However, after a lot of back and forth, council decided to refer the entire matter to its finance and audit committee, without a recommendation of whether to set the limit at $2 million.

Coun. Kyle Sampson also asked the question on most people’s minds: What if staff comes back to council for approval for more money and council says ‘no’ with a project half done (like the firehall is now). Soltis said they wouldn’t do that and I believe she and staff are smart enough to not to.

However, it also comes down to the fact that the report that went before council was staff telling council what they did not them asking permission. And therein lies the rub, as they say.

Coun. Brian Skakun also brought the issue that I started this with … changing the scope of a project after council has signed off on it. He pointed to the Nechako River Park as another example of where council approves a project and the project that gets done is somewhat different than what council voted on.

Councillors should be really, really mad … but it’s a process they agreed to. They have the power to change it. Hopefully, they will.

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