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City council resolute on continuing downtown construction

Mayor Taso Christopher (left), city clerk Matt MacDonald and councillors Jack Miller, Paul Carr and Garnet Thompson (far right) receiving a report on the status of the downtown revitalization project. Photo by Joseph Quigley. [1]

Mayor Taso Christopher (left), along with (from left) city clerk Matt MacDonald and councillors Jack Miller, Paul Carr and Garnet Thompson, receiving a report on the status of the downtown revitalization project. Photo by Joseph Quigley

By Joseph Quigley [2]

BELLEVILLE – Belleville city councillors stood firm behind the revitalization of the downtown on Tuesday despite the rising costs of the project.

The first stage of the city centre revitalization project [3], which is part of the larger Build Belleville plan [4], has already cost $12 million of the $21 million budgeted for all three stages. This pushes the overall plan more than $10 million over budget and has caused city staff to offer alternatives:

A financial analysis of options for the downtown project going forward. Option two, which was to separate stage three of the project, was recommended by city staff. [5]

A financial analysis of options for the downtown project going forward, which was presented to city council this week. Option 2, which was to separate Stage 3 from the rest of the project, was recommended by city staff. The full report on the project can be found here [6]. Report courtesy of City of Belleville

The city staff overseeing the project came to council on Tuesday with a proposed motion to start contractor bidding for Phase 2 early next year, as originally planned. Staff also recommended the city make Stage 3 a separate, and separately financed, project.

Stage 1 of the project, currently under construction, goes from Station Street to Pinnacle Street and Victoria Avenue. Stage 2 of includes reconstruction of Front Street from Victoria Avenue to Bridge Street. Stage 3 includes Front Street from Bridge Street to Dundas Street.

Ultimately, city council voted to push the bidding for Phase 2 of the project forward, but not before a long discussion.

Coun. Paul Carr asked why the cost has risen so much.

“The elephant in the room here is we’ve got $12 million that have been spent or committed on the project thus far. So we’re running out of money. Was the consultant estimate (for the original project budget) that grossly underestimated?”

Mark Fluhrer, the city’s director of recreation, culture and community, said the project has gone over budget because the construction is difficult.

“There’s been a real change in the way that contractors look at downtown reconstruction work,” said Fluhrer. “The demands of the municipality are such that it has become almost a specialized type of construction. Local contractors (said) they don’t want to get into that type of construction because there’s so much extra work that comes into maintaining pedestrian access. On top of that, it’s very tight, complicated work in older parts of municipalities.”

Carr then asked for a detailed breakdown of project costs to be presented to council for public record.

“I’m just wondering how much homework was done in terms of trying to get truer costs. We’re paying a lot of money to the consultants and now I’m seeing the overall costs getting out of hand,” he said.

But other councillors raised concerns about any kind of delay on carrying forward with the next stage of the project by waiting for more reports.

The next stage “has to be done,” said Coun. Jack Miller. “It’s not going to get any cheaper. As much as I want the want the same answers Coun. Carr does, I don’t hold the project up waiting for them. Because waiting, putting things off, it’s going to be more and more expensive.”

Coun. Mike Graham agreed.

“We’ve got to stay focused. We’ve got to keep heading in that direction,” said Graham. “We’ve spent the money on Phase 1 and I agree with Coun. Carr it’d be nice to know the details. But the important thing is we can’t let up now. I think we have to continue with Phase 2.”

Carr later clarified that he did not want to hold up the next stage of the project, but instead wanted detailed answers about the rising costs of Stage 1.

“My questions have nothing to do with holding up Phase 2. When I look at the bottom line I see that we have committed or spent $12 million of $21 (million). That’s the question: What happened?” asked Carr. “And all I’m asking for is (to) break it down for us. I think we need the accountability and the scrutiny. I know my constituents are asking a lot of questions, and I want to be there to give them answers.”

Mayor Taso Christopher said that the costs can be explained by the delay between planning and execution and that council needs to proceed on the matter.

“There’s this thing called real-time price and then there’s completed price. Governments can never get real-time price. They give you an estimate and then you approve it but it doesn’t get executed for 20-plus months. That’s what’s happening across the nation,” he said.

Christopher added a metaphor to explain what he meant.

“You can go get your kitchen renovated and you get a price for today – you don’t go back six years later and ask to get your kitchen done for the same price. It’s a soft, mundane example, but that’s the facts.”

Council’s decision to put Stage 2 of the project out to tender means city staff will search for contractor offers early next year. Council will then decide on the project and its budget based on those offers.