It’s smart to invest in energy efficient city buildings

The City of Whitehorse recently passed the 2015 capital budget and approved funding for a building consolidation project. 

COMMENTARY

by Dan Curtis

The City of Whitehorse recently passed the 2015 capital budget and approved funding for a building consolidation project. This is an important step towards a project that will make municipal services more efficient and reduce the cost to operate our buildings. We will do this by replacing old infrastructure with energy-efficient buildings that are well designed for their intended purpose and use.

This project will construct a new services building next to city hall. City services like getting a building permit or a business licence will be offered at this central location. Most city operations like road maintenance will move to a new operations building, near the public safety building, at Range Road and Two Mile Hill. This move will reduce heavy equipment traffic downtown, and free up prime real estate for development.

The total construction cost of the new buildings is $55 million. This is the cost estimate from the business case and functionality program report. It is a conservative estimate that was prepared by a team of independent experts. The city is planning to pay for this project using $13 million from federal gas tax funding, $13 million from the city’s capital reserves, and $29 million in low-interest financing.

Borrowing costs are not included in this total, but they are accounted for as annual costs, similar to a mortgage on a house. We have been living on reduced capital expenditures for two years, building up reserves, and can continue to do this to cover ongoing yearly financing costs. This is why no new tax increases are needed as a result of this project. Once the buildings are constructed, the ongoing energy and lease costs will be reduced by $500,000 per year, and will be used to lower the financing costs.

The approved capital budget also sets aside an additional $1.4 million for art and furnishings for the newly constructed buildings. The art budget has been prepared according to a council policy that recognizes the value of placing local art in public buildings.

This is a large and complex project, and some details still have to be confirmed. For example, the cost to demolish the Municipal Services Building and remediate the site is not included in the project cost estimate. Nor is the potential revenue from the sale of this site. We have reviewed ultimate demolition costs and the preliminary site remediation costs and we anticipate that revenue from land sales will cover these costs.

The downtown fire hall is in a 60-year-old building that needs to be replaced. Plans for this building have been waiting on the fire services strategic plan, which is almost complete. That plan confirms the need for a downtown fire hall for initial response. Options for incorporating the fire hall into the services building will be reviewed by council as part of the design process.

The city is replacing infrastructure that is well past its useful life, and we are doing this in a way that is affordable and cost-effective. It would be much more expensive if we decided to not proceed with this project. According to the business case and functionality program report, keeping the old buildings will cost 2.77 times the replacement cost. It is not responsible to continue with the status quo.

The city is investing in the building consolidation project because it is our top infrastructure priority. This is a financially responsible choice we are making for our community. This project will also create significant economic opportunities for local businesses, tradespeople, contractors and suppliers.

We have shared information with citizens and sought feedback as this project was developed. Last year, the city consulted with citizens for the business case and functionality program. Earlier this year, we presented information to the city’s advisory finance committee and the chambers of commerce, and invited their feedback as part of the budget process.

Each year, the city asks citizens what they would like to see in the budgets before they are tabled. That consultation was launched in October. We tried a new survey tool this year called citizen budget. This tool is meant for operating budget expenses, as it gives citizens a chance to see how budget decisions affect tax and utility rates.

Once council decided to bring this project forward as part of the 2015 capital budget, the information was finalized for the budget package and we set up a new page on the city’s website. The project details were tabled with the budget, posted on the website and widely advertised. Given the significance of this project, a public open house was held in November, in addition to the usual public input opportunities for the budget process.

As we move ahead with the building consolidation project, the city will continue to update information on our website at www.whitehorse.ca/buildingconsolidation and we will share regular updates with the community, as suggested by the chambers of commerce at the capital budget public input night. We will keep adding to the information on our website and we will provide updates in the media.

Dan Curtis is the mayor of Whitehorse.

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