Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Public deserves explanation of cop HQ fiasco

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In an effort to save money, the City of Winnipeg started work on a new police headquarters before the design for the building was finished. Two years later, the project budget went up $27 million.

In an apparent effort to save money, the city cancelled a plan to hire a full-time project co-ordination team for the new cop shop, instead hiring one guy to report to the city once a month. Three years later, the budget went up $81 million.

In an effort to be more efficient, the city bought a 58-year-old Canada Post warehouse to convert into the new police headquarters instead of fixing the exterior of the smaller 49-year-old Public Safety Building. Six years later, the budget for the replacement project is $190 million more.

This is the infuriating state of Winnipeg's police headquarters redevelopment, a $211-million megaproject that started out as a $21-million plan to repair crumbling Tyndall stone.

Last month, city hall was rocked by the release of an external audit of Winnipeg's fire-paramedic station replacement program, which was severely mismanaged and marred by unfair contract awards. That debacle only went over budget by $2.5 million.

In financial terms, the Winnipeg police headquarters project is a disaster on an entirely different scale.

In 2008, when the city started poking around Canada Post's old mail-processing facility on Graham Avenue, it seemed like a great idea to consolidate 14 police divisions within a single building rather than blow money fixing the Public Safety Building.

A decision was made to buy the Canada Post building in 2009, following an 18-month due-diligence period that failed to uncover problems with the aging structure despite the expert advice of eight consultants who charged the city a total of $174,000.

Initially, the city appeared determined to ensure this project would be handled properly. In 2010, project manager Abdul Aziz, a Winnipeg Police Service employee, authored a rigorous request for proposals for a project co-ordination team that would place experts at the site every day until the project was finished.

For reasons the city refuses to explain, no contract for this job was awarded. Bidders were told the contractor could handle project oversight on its own. By the end of the year, the total project budget was quietly revised upwards from $130 million to $168 million. It was revised upward to $194 million six months later when the city revealed there were problems with the structure.

In June 2011, the city hired construction expert Ossama AbouZeid as project manager, albeit in a vastly reduced capacity. AbouZeid had worked in the offices of Tower Engineering Group, which had submitted a $1.3-million bid for the cancelled project co-ordinator job. AbouZeid also knew Winnipeg chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl, as both had served on the board of the Winnipeg Football Club.

AbouZeid was assigned a $263,000 contract that involved negotiating a construction contract for the police headquarters and reporting back to the city once a month about progress on the work.

In July 2011, Caspian Projects agreed to a $137-million "guaranteed maximum price" for the core construction work, based on a design that was only 30 per cent complete. According to a letter sent to AbouZeid by Caspian president Armik Babakhanians, that price was conditional "upon the design team completing 100 per cent design documents" by Nov. 15, 2011.

When November came, the design wasn't ready. Caspian, however, signed the final construction contract with the city on Nov. 18, according to city finance documents. Council voted unanimously in July to give Sheegl sole power to award the contract.

The final design wasn't completed until April 2013. Caspian then went to work on a final cost for the construction. On Sept. 26, city officials were made aware of a total project budget of $211 million.

This last batch of cost overruns on the police headquarters started a chain of events that resulted in Sheegl leaving the city.

No one at the City of Winnipeg will discuss these events. Requests to speak to former project manager Aziz, acting CAO Deepak Joshi and other officials were declined Thursday and Friday. AbouZeid and Babakhanians declined to speak because they signed non-disclosure agreements. Mayor Sam Katz was out of the city. Only police Chief Devon Clunis would talk.

"You're asking a difficult question (in) an area I'm not going to weigh in on," Clunis said Friday about the project oversight. "I'm not ready to lay blame at anybody's feet."

To date, three councillors have called for an audit of the police headquarters. But that would take time and money.

Given the disturbing revelations about the fire-paramedic station replacement program, it's incumbent on all remaining city officials who played a role in the police headquarters project to provide the public with an explanation -- and do so now.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 B1

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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