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The public deserves more details about continuing care centre's costs

Construction in the Yukon, or anywhere for that matter, is very expensive these days. Sometimes you look at the cost of a particular project and it almost knocks you out of your seat.

Construction in the Yukon, or anywhere for that matter, is very expensive these days.

Sometimes you look at the cost of a particular project and it almost knocks you out of your seat. But the price tag for the new continuing care facility planned for the Whistle Bend neighbourhood of Whitehorse could knock you clear across the room.

The total budget for the initial 150-bed phase of the facility is estimated to be a whopping $146.6 million - or, expressed another way, a mind-boggling $977,000 per bed.

Liberal leader Sandy Silver has recently attempted to raise some questions about the price in the media. He pointed to a larger Swift Current facility with a much smaller price tag, where the cost also included 30 years of maintenance and repairs (something the Yukon government is not getting on the Whistle Bend Facility), and questioned whether the government may be overbuilding in anticipation of a doubling of the capacity of the facility at some point down the road.

On Monday, the Yukon Party issued a brief and unfortunately snarky press release in response to what I would say were Silver’s relatively reasonably expressed reservations about the price.

It accused the Liberal leader of making an “oversimplified apples-to-oranges comparison” and repeated the talking point that the government is the “only party that supports the construction of this much-needed facility.” It corrected a rumour that Silver had repeated about some parts of the facility being “pre-fab” (i.e. built down south) but otherwise only engaged the substance of his critiques in generalities.

I think it should be noted at this juncture that Silver had conceded that “you can’t compare these things 100 per cent.” But the problem with the idea that we need a perfect “apples-to-apples” or “oranges-to-oranges” comparison before any questions can be raised about the price tag of the Whistle Bend facility is that one simply doesn’t exist for this project. We’ve never done anything on this scale before. And to require a perfect comparison would be to foreclose any public debate or discussion about the cost of this facility.

$146 million is a lot of money. With that amount a rounding error is important. And I think some debate about the cost of this project is a good idea - albeit perhaps a little late.

I must say that the idea that a continuing care facility could cost nearly a million dollars a bed is intuitively a little hard to swallow. In question period back in December the premier noted that “this is not a seniors residence; this is a health facility,” but perusing the specifications for the project it is frankly a little hard to see where all the money is going.

Sufficed to say, I just don’t get it. But the cost of government procurement in general has never made sense to me, and given that this project did go through a competitive bidding process I guess some of the answer is that “it costs what it costs.”

The Yukon Party’s release goes on to note that the $146-million price tag is “not just the cost of construction” but also includes “land, site services, medical equipment, bed and furnishings, kitchen equipment, information technology and project management.” Fair enough, I suppose.

According to a “technical briefing” (emphasis on the “brief”) located on the government’s website a (very precise) $12,098,830 figure is allocated to “Equipment, Transition and Move-In” and a further $20,515,900 to “Site Infrastructure and Project Management.”

This still leaves $113,985,270 for the “Design-Build Construction contract” - a few million more than what was paid for the Swift Current facility for two-thirds the number of beds and without the inclusion of 30 years’ worth of maintenance and repair in the sticker price.

Few would disagree with the notion that the Yukon needs to expand its capacity for continuing care with the number of people over the age of 65 expecting to skyrocket in upcoming decades.

As the Yukon Party notes in its release this is “one of the largest capital projects in Yukon history.” No doubt. It is more than double the cost of the Watson Lake and Dawson City hospitals combined. In fact, this project is so big that it will cost about as much as the Yukon government pulls into its coffers through own-source revenue in a year just to build - meaning for one year every dollar paid in territorial tax in the Yukon could notionally be said to be going towards funding this project.

This isn’t an argument against the project. Projections of Yukon’s growing number of seniors support an expansion of our capacity for long-term care.

But it is an argument in favour of treating questions about the cost of the facility with the seriousness that they deserve, rather than by issuing dismissive hyper-partisan press releases.

The Yukon Party would serve us better by telling us in specific terms why this project seems to be a lot more expensive than the Swift Current facility and why the comparison is “apples to oranges.” It is the one, after all, with access to the information.

How much of the difference can be attributed to the higher cost of building in the North? How much of the project cost is being spent in anticipation of a future expansion? Since the Swift Current facility has been raised as a comparison, are there specific differences between that facility and the Whistle Bend facility that justify a heftier price tag? Has the government estimated the lifetime maintenance and repair cost of the new facility, and if so how much will it cost us?

There may well be good answers to these questions, but on Monday we didn’t get them. Instead we got unnecessary election-year partisanship on an important issue of public policy. Ultimately “apples and oranges” are both fruit, and there are limits to which the differences between the two projects can simply be brushed aside by saying, “well that’s different.”

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.