Under fire from both opposition parties, Premier Darrell Pasloski defended his government’s handling of the F.H. Collins school replacement in the legislature on Thursday, one day after the project was publicly tendered for the second time.
The new tender, released on Wednesday, is seeking bids on a design-build contract to construct a new 750-student facility based on a design imported from Alberta.
But it includes criteria that will essentially exclude local contractors from bidding on the project, according to the NDP.
“The message is clear: Yukon contractors need not apply,” said NDP Leader Liz Hanson.
“Bidders must have built three projects in the last three years that are similar to the new F. H. Collins Secondary School. So why on earth would the Yukon Party deliberately structure the tender to reduce job opportunities for Yukoners?” Hanson asked.
Pasloski dodged the question, saying nothing about the tenders and instead attacking the NDP for being bad financial managers themselves. He also spoke about a recent Standard and Poor’s report which gave the territorial government a AA credit rating.
“That’s because we know how to balance the books; we know when to make a decision, when to invest and when to say we cannot afford this decision,” Pasloski said.
Last spring, the government announced it was cancelling the first iteration of the F.H. Collins project because, Pasloski said, bids for the school’s construction came back too high.
Pasloski said that two independent estimates had helped the government generate its approved budget, and that the lowest bid was nearly $10 million higher.
But information obtained by the News through an access-to-information request shows that there was a third estimate which told the government its original design for F.H. Collins would likely cost $43.7 million, not the $38.6 million it had budgeted for the project.
Both Hanson and interim Liberal Leader Sandy Silver hammered Pasloski on how his government handled the previous tenders for the now-defunct original design, which was cancelled in March.
“Why did the premier tell the public that two estimates told them that they could build the new school for $38.6 million when that was not in fact what the estimates said?” Silver asked.
The premier again skirted the question, arguing that the Liberals and the NDP would both have chosen to go ahead with an over-budget project.
“That’s a great writing team. I want the premier to answer the question,” Silver retorted. “The government did its best to keep these documents out of the public eye. Now we know why.”
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Pasloski said that the government stuck to its $38.6 million budget because it was trying to be fiscally responsible.
“When we haven’t even turned a shovel and it’s already $10 million over what was budgeted, then I made the decision that we had to look at this again and I believe we made the right one,” Pasloski said.
Except that the government already had put a shovel in the ground, literally wielded by Pasloski himself at the F.H. Collins official groundbreaking ceremony in 2011 – months before the last territorial election.
There had also been more than $2.6 million worth of site-preparation work done before the original project was sent out to tender.
Pasloski said it was his decision to evaluate the bids based on the original budget, knowing it excluded the costs of the temporary gym and geothermal heat, and that he made it because he was looking out for taxpayers’ interests.
“If the bids would have come in slightly above what we had budgeted and it was reflected that (the contractors) had added the money in for the temporary gym, we probably would have had to look at it differently than we did,” he said.
The temporary gym was promised in December after the original project had been put out to tender. The government adjusted the tender documents to include the geothermal heat and the gym heat after a public outcry demanding it. However, it did not adjust the budget to include those additions.
That decision may have violated public contracting standards.
“A tender is supposed to represent a legitimate opportunity for business for a private sector firm,” explained Michael Asner, a B.C.-based expert in public procurement.
Asner said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the F.H. Collins tenders because he hadn’t seen them. Generally speaking, “the fundamental public policy on tendering is that it be fair, open, and transparent,” he said.
“The way you prove the legitimacy is that you have approved the budget. A further test on it in some jurisdictions is that there must be either intention to do it or in fact there have been budget allocations for it,” Asner said.
When the government decided to import a school design from Outside, it granted Barr Ryder Architects a sole-sourced $900,000 contract to adapt the design to Yukon climate standards and oversee the project.
Highways and Public Works spokeswoman Kendra Black said that because Barr Ryder were the architects behind the Alberta version of the school, they would be best suited to adapt the design in the North.
Among the changes, the new design is 1,345 square metres smaller than the old design and is two storeys tall instead of three.
About 60 per cent of the total design work has been done, mostly involving changes to the layout and including a cafeteria and culinary arts program, Black said. That leaves about 40 per cent of the design up to the bidding contractors.
The closing date for submissions on the new tender is Dec. 12.
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