Further to a story we brought you yesterday regarding the escalating cost of the site preparation required at River Mill Park to receive the estimated $300,000 prebuilt washroom facility donated by a private citizen, a special Huntsville Council meeting was called yesterday to deal with the situation.
At that meeting, staff were before council asking for a 350 per cent increase to their original estimate to prepare the site for the washrooms. They were requesting an additional $270,000 of unbudgeted funds on top of the $60,000 set aside in the 2023 budget for the same.
“The groundwork was a collective work that was done with a number of our Town staff members as well as using external consultants, and at the time that we developed the budget for the site preparation for the washroom, prices were much lower,” said Director of Operations and Protective Services for the Town, Tarmo Ukkivvi. He added that the washroom facility built in Montreal is a unique custom design and staff had no comparators.”There are no comparators out there. It’s a unique build. It’s a custom design, so it’s very difficult to gauge the market ahead of time to see what pricing would actually be. The staff best estimate at the time was that $60,000 was quite sufficient to get the site preparation work completed.”
He said staff tried to fastrack the work, “that also meant that potential bidders didn’t have as much time to actually bid on contracts and do proper cost evaluations and provide us with detailed costing on the project. Underneath all of that, we have been experiencing some significant cost increases in materials, in labour, and in contracted prices,” he told council, adding that when the initial tender went out it resulted in only one (out-of-town) bidder at an estimate of $400,000, which staff thought was “out of this world high.”
Staff then went back to the consultants and worked together to come up with a different approach—one that included breaking up the project into smaller components. In the end, Uukkivi said they were able to bring the cost of the site preparation down to $330,000 from $400,000. (Details HERE.)
“Let me be very frank and blunt here today,” said Councillor Cory Clarke. “I’m extremely unhappy with what’s in this report. I think what we’re being asked to agree to is unacceptable and I think, in my opinion, is financially irresponsible.”
Clarke said he has seen a pattern with projects that arrive at the council table “and more and more they’re drastically over budget… that pattern has to stop.”
Councillor Dione Schumacher agreed. She said she’d like to see staff get three quotes for projects moving forward, otherwise, they should be put on hold. She also reminded council that the washroom donation was seen as a win by the previous council as the washroom facilities at the Chamber had been rented as were the portable washrooms.
Councillors Bob Stone said he wants to see a breakdown of the project cost and Clarke further questioned why other options had not been considered such as changing the location for the washrooms at the park. “There’s just way too many questions and not enough answers here today,” said Clarke.
Huntsville Mayor Nancy Alcock said if council isn’t happy with staff’s report, a clear direction should be given. “We do have built washrooms. We have a very generous citizen and we actually have built washrooms so I think it’s incumbent upon the council then to say ‘if we don’t like this option, then we need to give staff some direction as to where might we put these washrooms, if that’s an issue, if there’s another location. Again, they’re meant for River Mill Park so we are kind of within that geography, that’s what we have to think about,” she told Clarke, adding “we’ve all heard the message.”
Alcock told council that if they wanted to get further information “as to some of the details around the costing, that unfortunately because of our protocols or rules and regulations, we have to do that in closed [session]and we can direct staff to bring a report in closed for the end of the month,” she added.
Councillor Scott Morrison said he’d like to avoid a closed session discussion as much as possible, noting that residents have a right to know where the money is going. “The donation side of it, that can’t handcuff us into committing to spending $300,000 worth of taxpayer dollars,” he said, adding that everything has to be on the table including the penalty for cancelling the project or finding out if the bathroom facility can be used in another location entirely. “We need to look at everything on how we spend this money for the taxpayer and I can’t see us spending [these amounts]… when you could’ve bought the whole Chamber building for $600,000, you know what I mean, with a parking lot.”
Morrison also questioned the process noting that the previous council had committed to the washroom and the removal of trees “without even having any quotes yet on what it was going to cost to install… we’ve got ourselves in a bit of a pickle here,” he said, adding that going forward, “let’s make sure that we have all of the numbers.”
Alcock said when the $60,000 was approved by the previous council it was her understanding that that would cover the site preparation work.
Deputy Mayor Dan Armour said council needs to focus on the fact that the washroom facility is paid for. “So we need to focus on just the $330,000 and moving it and finding a new location I think is important if that works, anything that we can do to save any bit of money,” he said, adding that perhaps it can be located closer to the actual water and sewer and electrical connections as long as it stays within the park.
Armous asked whether the washroom facility could be resold or stored until council figures things out. Uukkivi said he could not comment on the manufacturer’s ability to resell the washroom but said it could be stored by a third party for free.
Councillor Jason FitzGerald said he had researched the cost of installing the self-cleaning washroom facility in other municipalities “and the costs seemed to be in a range from $400,000 to $600,000. I think the major focus on all this was public safety and lower cost of maintenance throughout the life expectancy of the facility and there was resistance offered by the public in most locations where they did install these, but they installed them.”
Councillor Clarke noted that there are porta-potties at the park. He said they may not be fantastic facilities “but they certainly don’t cost $300,000. If there’s vandalism to those, they’re easily replaced and cheaply replaced.”
Morrison said he had just been at an event where only porta potties were available “and it was fine,” he said, adding that should be a consideration “and I think we need to pump the brakes as a council and as a staff, and just look at everything.”
In the end, council deferred making a decision and asked staff to return in July with a more detailed report on cost and the possibility of getting out of the project. Council also asked staff to explore other options including other locations for the washrooms and return to council with their findings in September.
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