Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Senior city staff on firing line

Call news conference to insist fire stations land swap legit

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Facing heat from city council, seven senior City of Winnipeg administrators say there's no reason for politicians or the public to worry about the way they procured four new fire- paramedic stations.

Councillors have raised concerns about the $15.3-million construction of new halls in Sage Creek, River Heights, Charleswood and St. James. The questioning began 10 days ago after Shindico Realty briefly listed the old Station No. 12 for lease even though council has yet to declare the Grosvenor Avenue property surplus.

Then, Winnipeg Fire-Paramedic Chief Reid Douglas disclosed he had reached an agreement in principle with Shindico to swap the new No. 12 station -- built on Taylor Avenue land still owned by Shindico executives -- for the old Grosvenor property as well as the existing No. 11 station on Berry Street and a chunk of Fort Rouge land on Mulvey Avenue East.

Finally, the city belatedly posted a 2009 request for proposals to build the fire halls, which called for the successful bidder to be approved by council -- a move that did not transpire.

After questions piled up, the chief administrative officer, chief financial officer, fire-paramedic chief, solicitor, chief operations officer, property director and corporate-finance materials manager gathered on Friday to insist, once and for all, the city followed due process on the fire-paramedic station replacement project.

"There's nothing that's been done that's untoward," chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl told reporters, declaring this capital project no different than any other.

The proposed land swap allowed the city to avoid having to find additional money to purchase land for a new Station No. 12, said Sheegl.

He promised council will have a chance this fall to either approve the deal or pay Shindico $990,000 for the Taylor land. In a statement, Mayor Sam Katz said the swift completion of a report about the deal is a priority because "the citizens of Winnipeg need to be able to have confidence in city processes."

Council did not have to approve a contract to build the paramedic stations -- as stated in the request for proposals -- because the project was broken down into four components, one for each fire-paramedic station, Sheegl added.

That's because the original request for proposals was to design and build the stations, while in the end, each station wound up with different needs, Sheegl said. For example, new No. 27 station Sage Creek wound up being a straight construction project on land purchased from Qualico after a one-size-fits-all design was located in Ontario.

In the end, Shindico wound up receiving four separate contracts, of $3 million, $3.2 million, $3.2 million and $5.9 million. The public service has the authority to approve any contract under $10 million, without council oversight, chief financial officer Mike Ruta said.

Sheegl also said there was no need for council approval once a budget was assigned to the project in July 2010, in a report that authorized $9.7 million of low-interest borrowing from Ottawa.

"I think we followed all the procedures and policies we have," the CAO said. "At the end of the day, this is a wonderful story. We have four new fire halls (and) our response times have improved in all those areas."

The reaction from councillors ranged from annoyance to contempt as some continue to complain about being left in the dark about the fire-paramedic upgrade. Normally, councillors are notified about changes to projects by capital budget documents, committee reports, memos or even verbal updates.

"I've known about parts of this verbally and I haven't seen a single piece of paper," seethed protection chairwoman Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo).

"I don't know who within the bureaucracy is actually championing the project," added property chairman Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan). "If all the facts were clear, then this should have come out last week when the media started asking about it."

Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi said she remains unconvinced the project was handled properly. "I still believe there needs to be a full audit of this property transaction as well as others over the past few years," she said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 A3

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