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No land-swap review soon

Consultant search ends next month

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Winnipeggers will have to wait until November -- if not December or early 2013 -- for answers to questions swirling around the construction of four new fire-paramedic stations.

Earlier this week, the city launched a search for an out-of-province consultant capable of reviewing the city's fire-paramedic station replacement program, which has ignited a firestorm of criticism at city hall.

Almost every member of council has condemned some aspect of the project, which included the construction of a new fire-paramedic Station No. 12 on Taylor Avenue on land owned by Shindico Realty and the proposed swap of this private land for the old Station No. 12 on Grosvenor Avenue, the soon-to-be-decommissioned Station No. 11 on Berry Street and a parcel of vacant city-owned land on Mulvey Avenue East. Councillors have also raised concerns about land valuations, the awarding of contracts, administrative disclosure of the project's progress and potential cost overruns, among other issues involving a project originally pegged at $15.3 million.

To conduct the review of the project, city auditors expect to select an out-of-province consultant between Nov. 5 and Nov. 7, according to a request for qualification document (RFQ) published this week.

That means the review will not begin until Nov. 5 at the earliest and there is no timeline for completion set. "I can't give you a date," said city spokeswoman Tammy Melesko, referring to a target for the completion of the review. "The auditor will have the findings made available as soon as possible."

St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal, who was among the first on council to call for an external audit of the fire-paramedic station replacement program, said he is OK with the timeline for the review, especially considering an out-of-province consultant will be conducting it.

"If this needs to take a little longer than what anyone anticipated, so be it. The important thing is we do it thoroughly and properly," Vandal said Thursday. "In my opinion, it's better to do it right the first time. If we have to take a few more months, so be it."

Mayor Sam Katz initially ordered chief financial officer Mike Ruta to review the fire-paramedic replacement program on Sept. 4, in the hope a review would be concluded before city council held its next monthly meeting. But on Sept. 21, city auditor Brian Whiteside told the mayor too many questions remained unanswered and the city would require outside expertise to conclude the review.

On Sept. 24, Katz and Whiteside announced the city will seek outside help to complete the review. According to the eligibility rules included in the RFQ, the individual or team selected to perform the review must not operate, practise or live in Manitoba. The winning proponent also have must no ties to the City of Winnipeg or the fire-paramedic station construction project.

The scope of the review includes project oversight, budget processes, procurement, project management, land acquisition and sales, legal analysis of real estate transactions, a review of policy and legislation, real estate valuations and an analysis of decision-making and processes pertaining to the project.

This review is separate from a broader real estate audit council approved unanimously on Sept. 27. The scope of that audit has yet to be determined, but may include the aborted sale of the downtown surface lot known as Parcel Four this spring and the 2009 Parker land swap.

In the wake of the real estate concerns at city hall -- as well as corporate and real estate transactions involving Katz and chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl -- Winnipeg's Jewish Post & News published an editorial this week calling for the mayor and CAO, who are Jewish, to resign.

"As Jews, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard of behaviour -- not only because we are so often stereotyped by others, but because so much of what it means to be a Jew is grounded in an ethical norm that has developed over thousands of years," wrote editor Bernie Bellan, who has long been a vocal critic of the mayor.

Sheegl said he did not read the editorial, while Katz was not available for comment.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2012 A5

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