A major infrastructure project is a strange thing for the territorial cabinet to want to sabotage. Yet that appears to be what happened in the case of plans to rebuild F.H. Collins Secondary School.
Rather than admit that cabinet had allowed costs to spiral out of control, our political leaders instead lay blame at the feet of contractors. Better to blame a construction company than your own staff – and in turn acknowledge that you share responsibility in the mess – seems to be the reasoning.
Premier Darrell Pasloski and his ministers have long asserted that bids to rebuild the high school had overshot the mark by nearly $10 million. The government was merely being “fiscally responsible,” the story went, by abandoning several years of planning and several million in expenditures to start clean, with a new plan to crib designs from a school already built in Alberta.
But the story is not so simple, as we reported last week. The government had piled on additional costs, such as a temporary gym and geothermal heat, worth more than $5 million, to the project. Yet the territory never increased the project’s budget to accommodate these costs, even after paying a professional estimator to come up with a new figure.
In other words, it looks like the project’s procurement was designed to fail.
Why is this significant? To start, because it means that the premier and his government have been less than honest with the public. They’ve always indicated that the cost estimates for the project were close together. This was flat-out false.
The premier would no doubt respond that two earlier estimates were indeed close together. This is called lying by omission. He knew about the third, higher figure, and he decided against disclosing it.
And the territory tried its best to keep the higher figure a secret. We had to fight for it through an access-to-information request that the government initially denied.
The premier contends that his cabinet merely tendered a contract burdened with an additional $5 million in costs and hoped it would somehow stay within budget. This seems implausible. It suggests that our ministers are especially naive, or, more likely, that they hope the public is especially gullible.
Our territorial leaders’ initial refusal to speak to this matter further suggests they understood this was a big potential embarrassment, best kept under wraps. And their early response that this isn’t a ministerial responsibility was especially remarkable. If cabinet doesn’t make such decisions, who does, pray tell? Is this a tacit admission that the bureaucracy ran riot on the project while the minister ostensibly in charge sat on his thumbs?
That’s certainly what appears to have happened. Without anyone showing actual leadership on the “fiscal accountability” file for the project, we wound up with designs for an ostentatious monument – pricey glass walls, curving walls, long roof spans.
What’s more, the construction plans would see the new school built immediately beside the old one, ensuring that students would effectively be attending classes in a construction zone. And to top things off, these plans would see students with no gym for two years, ensuring a large number of fed-up students and parents.
With all these warning lights flashing, the minister of the day still approved construction of the project. Why? Well, there was an election just around the corner.
There’s good reason to think this produced a rush job. Recall how the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board concluded the territory had flouted the law by beginning construction before even receiving a green light from assessors. Then the whole project quickly ground to a halt.
So the Yukon Party got their foolish sod-turning ceremony during the election campaign … at what cost?
Four years and several million dollars in public funds, to start. Of course, private contractors who bid on the contract also wasted their resources, chasing a lucrative contract that the government, apparently, never actually intended to tender. This may be yet another lawsuit waiting to happen.
Meanwhile, the premier and his colleagues don’t even see this schmozzle as something that warrants a straight answer.
You can call all of this plenty of things. But “fiscally responsible” is not one of them.