A journey to nowhere

How well does the Yukon government spend our money? It seems like a simple enough question, so the News asked it. But more than six months later, after dozens of emails, phone calls and access to information requests, we still don’t have an answer.

ANALYSIS

How well does the Yukon government spend our money?

It seems like a simple enough question, so the News asked it. But more than six months later, after dozens of emails, phone calls and access to information requests, we still don’t have an answer.

In interviews and press conferences, the government always insists it is doing a good job. The opposition, meanwhile, always insists that it isn’t. We decided to ask for the numbers and see for ourselves.

On the heels of the auditor general’s report into the controversial management of the projects to build new hospitals in Dawson City and Watson Lake and a new nursing residence in Whitehorse, we decided to collect a rundown on the original budgets and final costs of 10 of the government’s big infrastructure projects over the past few years.

We approached each government department and asked for two things: the original design budget and final cost upon completion for a series of projects. These included the Dawson City wastewater treatment plant, the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, the Tantalus School replacement in Carmacks, the Whitehorse airport terminal expansion, the F.H. Collins replacement project, the Mayo B hydro project and the Hamilton Blvd. extension .

We expected to receive a relatively straightforward set of numbers that would show how much the government planned to spend, and how much it actually spent.

No such luck.

When the News first made its series of requests in April to the departments, we were told that we’d asked the wrong people. Highways and Public Works handles the construction of all buildings, we were told. So we asked the department for the numbers in mid-April.

After two weeks, we were given a breakdown of costs for some projects, but others were omitted, and only one project – the Tantalus School replacement – included any budgeting information. The others only listed what was spent by the department, which only captures the construction costs for certain parts of the projects.

We were also told to go back to the Department of Community Services and request the numbers from them for the Hamilton Blvd. and Dawson City Waste Water projects.

The News asked Public Works spokeswoman Aisha Montgomery why the original budgets hadn’t been included with the information we received. We also filed formal access to information requests for the information.

Five weeks went by.

In late June, Montgomery arranged a face-to-face interview with deputy minister Cynthia Tucker to explain the intricacies of government budgeting, but we were told we could only take notes. No recording of the interview – standard procedure in most cases – would be permitted.

Tucker explained that the reason why we were having such difficulty getting the numbers we wanted: they don’t actually exist.

When the government first proposes an infrastructure project, it often doesn’t know what it will have to spend.

Highways and Public Works uses a rubric of five classes to determine how much leeway there can be in project estimates, based on how far along in the planning phase the project is. Each class has an associated project cost estimate that can be adjusted widely.

The other complicating factor is that Highways and Public Works isn’t actually in charge of most big projects. Instead, it operates like an in-house government general contractor, accepting chunks of money from the other departments to physically build chunks of projects. But even if you total all the chunks that the department spends over the life of a project, that won’t capture the total cost of the project because it’s only related to the construction and only sometimes covers design and planning.

This means that when you ask the government what it planned to spend on a project, it could give five possible answers. For many of our requests, we were given none.

In an email, Public Works pointed out that in 2012 the auditor general said the department had made “significant improvements” in its ability to complete projects on time and within budget.

Seventy-five per cent of building development projects handled by that department were within budget and 100 per cent were on time, according to the auditor general.

Earlier this month the News tried one last time to approach the departments and ask for the numbers. We also gave the government ministers the chance to comment on this story. We were told repeatedly that the numbers are “complicated” and difficult to produce.

A number of departmental spokespeople suggested we cull through the government’s archive of press releases to find the answers we sought. We did that, to no avail.

We also combed through the Yukon government capital budgets for the past 10 years, in an attempt to record at least what was budgeted and spent in each consecutive year. This was also unhelpful.

The closest we could get to our goal was captured in an access-to-information request submitted to Highways and Public Works in May and delivered in July.

In an “issue alert” prepared by spokesperson Aisha Montgomery, it outlines the total contract value (not what we were after) and total expenditures by Highways and Public Works for some of the projects in question.

* The Dawson City Wastewater treatment plan had a contract value of $29.4 million, and $29.3 million was actually spent.

* The Whitehorse Correctional Centre’s contract value was $70.4 million, with $69.8 million spent.

* The Tantalus School contract value was $11.1, with $11.5 million spent.

* The airport terminal building expansion’s contract value was $15.6 million and $15.8 was spent.

In the course of our discussion with the various departments, we also managed to cobble together some other numbers for the projects we were interested in, though nothing comprehensive.

According to Yukon Energy, the Mayo B hydro project had an original budget of $120 million, and came in finished at slightly less.

Canada’s auditor general slammed the government and the Yukon Hospital Corp. over its handling of the Dawson City and Watson Lake hospitals. Those jobs were months behind and plagued by contractor problems.

The Watson Lake hospital, which was originally slated as a $5 million renovation, ended up as a $26.8 million new building that was $4.8 million over budget.

The Dawson City hospital, which should have been finished a year ago, is more than $3.2 million over budget and still isn’t open.

The Crocus Ridge nurses residence was a year and a half late when it opened in April 2011, and was $1.3 million over budget.

Hamilton Blvd. was finished in 2009 and cost $15 million, and is still plagued by a shifting roadbed. The government still has not identified a long-term solution.

Contact Jesse Winter at

jessew@yukon-news.com

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