Cardiff questions jail costs

Shoddy planning may result in "huge cost overruns" at the new Whitehorse Correctional Centre, warns the NDP's Steve Cardiff. The new prison, to be complete by the end of 2011, is supposed to cost $66.7 million. Cardiff spent two decades working as a sheet metal journeyman and 16 years as a union boss.

Shoddy planning may result in “huge cost overruns” at the new Whitehorse Correctional Centre, warns the NDP’s Steve Cardiff.

The new prison, to be complete by the end of 2011, is supposed to cost $66.7 million.

Cardiff spent two decades working as a sheet metal journeyman and 16 years as a union boss. He still has strong ties to the construction industry, and workers have muttered to him the building will cost far more than expected.

But the official line from government is that the project is “on time and on budget.”

Don’t believe it, Cardiff told the legislature yesterday. During question period, Cardiff asked Public Works Minister Archie Lang to list all the changes made to contracts tied to the prison construction.

Lang didn’t answer the question. But a glance at the territory’s contract registry finds one contract that’s been changed seven times since it was struck in November of 2001.

It’s with Dalla-Lana Griffin Dowling Architects, a Vancouver-based firm hired to design schematics for the new jail.

The contract was initially worth $329,685. It’s now worth more than $1.8 million, and the contract’s still open until the end of March.

The News asked the Department of Public Works yesterday why this contract has remained open for nearly a decade, but had not received a response by press time this morning.

But the answer is clear to Cardiff. It’s called “fast-tracking” a project: save time by revising designs during construction.

But as designs change, work needs to be redone, causing costs to climb. This isn’t yet evident on the contract registry, but Cardiff warned it’s coming.

“Fast-tracking may be good for employees who are working by the hour, but it’s not very cost-effective for the taxpayers who are footing the bill for the project,” said Cardiff.

Lang responded the territory spent four years planning the facility.

“I’m not sure that was fast-tracked,” he said.

If that’s the case, Cardiff shot back, “Why, after four years of planning, did they start the building without all the design work and engineering in place? It doesn’t make sense.”

He compared the new jail to Watson Lake’s health facility, which started off with a $5-million budget.

Construction halted midway, when officials realized the old hospital wasn’t up to snuff for renovations. So the territory redesigned the half-built shell to hold a brand new hospital, to cost $25 million.

Cardiff claimed the jail was originally to cost $30 million. In fact, that’s the cost of an earlier prison plan, designed by a former Liberal government, responded Premier Dennis Fentie, who derided the Liberal plans as little more than a “warehouse.”

“We didn’t change plans,” said Fentie. “We threw away bad plans.”

In Cardiff’s opinion, there’s still plenty of bad planning happening.

On Wednesday, he upset what was meant to be a government chest-thumping exercise, when backbencher Steve Nordick started debate on the virtues of the territory’s long-term capital spending forecasts.

These forecasts are supposed to allow the construction industry to gear-up in advance for big government building projects. But the numbers are often way off base, as Cardiff noted.

One year ago, the territory estimated it would spend $15.1 million on land development in 2011-12. When the budget came down last week, it revealed the government plans to spend nearly $20 million on this instead.

The new FH Collins high school, meanwhile, was slated to receive $24.4 million in work. It’s getting $2.7 million, now that construction has been delayed for a year.

Cardiff sees “the good and the bad” in all this. He’d rather the territory hold off on building the new school until its designs are all in order, rather than jumpstart a project and blow the budget.

Once again, he recalled Watson Lake’s health-care boondoggle.

“Where is the long-term planning around that?” Cardiff asked.

Even more mystifying are projects the government claims are being worked on, but appear nowhere in the territorial budget.

Government members insist they’re looking to build a sobering centre in downtown Whitehorse. But there’s no line item in the budget for this work.

However, just because there’s no line item doesn’t mean work isn’t being done. Take the case of Old Crow’s new well.

The community’s water supply naturally contains high enough levels of arsenic to run afoul of new federal health rules. So the territory has promised to replace it for the past five years, by the reckoning of Old Crow’s Liberal MLA, Darius Elias.

On Monday, Elias demanded to know why this project didn’t appear in the budget. It once did: It had a line in 2009-10. But it disappeared from the books in 2010-11, and it remained missing for 2011-12.

“After five years and billions of dollars, not one shovel of dirt has been moved,” said Elias.

Government members let Elias fume for a few days before filling him in on all the details.

On Tuesday, Lang offered assurances the well would be approved by regulators by April, tendered by June, built by October and operating by November.

On Wednesday, Nordick said that $1 million would be spent digging the well.

And later that day, Economic Development Minister Jim Kenyon finally explained the well work was hidden in the Building Canada annual capital plan: a $38.5-million line item.

Never one to pass up a dig, Kenyon only shared this information after suggesting Elias was either financially illiterate or lazy – harsh stuff, for missing something that doesn’t actually appear in the budget.

“The money is there,” said Kenyon. “To say that it is not simply shows an inability to read financial documents – and I can understand that – or simply not reading them, which is perhaps more the problem in many respects.”

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