Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fire-hall land-swap review delayed by trip

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THE review of Winnipeg's fire-hall land swap is not expected to conclude until next week at the earliest, as chief financial officer Mike Ruta and other senior officials are off to New York City to meet with credit-rating agencies.

Earlier this month, Mayor Sam Katz ordered Ruta to lead a review into the city's construction of four new fire-paramedic stations, a $15.3-million program that includes a plan to swap two old fire halls and a parcel of Fort Rouge land for a piece of private property on Taylor Avenue.

The fire-hall land swap has upset most members of city council, who have complained about the financial aspects, the processes that allowed the negotiations to take place without their knowledge and the unusual fact a new fire-paramedic station was built on land owned by Shindico Realty.

Katz said on Sept. 12 that Ruta asked city auditor Brian Whiteside and third-party land appraisers to assist with the review, which the mayor hoped to see completed within another 10 days.

The completion date is now no earlier than the week of Sept. 24, as Ruta, Katz, chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl and council finance chairman Scott Fielding (St. James-Brooklands) are scheduled to fly to New York City today to meet with credit-rating agencies, whose scores determine the interest rates the city pays on its debt.

The trip was planned well before a review was called, said one city official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"You can't meet with these boys on short notice," said the official, referring to the financial institutions that set city credit ratings.

The city delegation is expected to make a presentation about how well Winnipeg has managed its finances. Mayor Sam Katz accompanied city officials on a similar trip in 2005.

"Changes to credit ratings can mean millions for our bottom line and have a major impact on how we are able to tackle our infrastructure deficit in the future," Katz said at the time.

In 2012, the city incurred $82.7 million worth of new debt to pay for infrastructure improvements, capital budget documents show. It will also spend $24.5 million in public-private-partnership payments.

Katz, Ruta, Sheegl and Fielding are expected to return to Winnipeg by the weekend. While city auditors and other officials are working on the fire-hall land-swap review in their absence, it is unknown whether that review will be completed by the Sept. 27 council meeting, as the mayor had hoped.

While the precise scope of the review has not been disclosed, Katz has said it will include both financial aspects and city hall procedures. City officials have chosen not to comment on either while the review is underway.

In a minor bit of positive news on the fire-paramedic front, councillors who represent wards containing two of the new stations now say they are no longer concerned about zoning issues.

Fielding, whose ward includes a new No. 11 Station under construction within a cloverleaf at the intersection of Portage Avenue and Route 90, said he is confident the unusual location is legal under city regulations.

As a public right of way, the cloverleaf had no zoning and technically belongs to the province. But a thorough review of the property revealed the city controls the land, said Ron Weatherburn, executive director of construction and maintenance with Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation.

Similarly, River Heights-Fort Garry Coun. John Orlikow, whose ward includes the new No. 12 Station built on Shindico land, said he is confident there are no zoning concerns with the Taylor Avenue property.

As recently as 2006, a council-approved report demanded a public hearing into new building at 1780 Taylor Ave., but that requirement lapsed when property owner Shindico did not bring a development plan forward within two years.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 19, 2012 B1

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