In the space of six minutes on a weekday afternoon, the City of Winnipeg issued three news releases designed to assure taxpayers the city isn’t blowing their hard-earned cash.
The first missive, issued at 5:13 p.m. on Monday, insisted the city’s $194-milllion police headquarters project is on time and on budget. The second, at 5:16 p.m., noted the $138-million Southwest Transitway is also on time and budget.
At 5:19 p.m., news release No. 3 trumpeted the fact the $49.5-million consolidation of several public works functions within the same east Winnipeg location is also — wait for it — on time and on budget!
The message was loud and clear: Winnipeg is doing a terrific job with your money! Why would you dare to believe otherwise?
After all, the city is "committed to observing strong fiscal prudence in the use of taxpayers’ funds," according to each piece of easily ignored late-afternoon propaganda, peculiarly and perfectly timed to miss out on the most important portion of the 24-hour news cycle.
The trio of releases arrived hours after Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt requested an audit into $20 million of cost overruns on a Waverley West road-building project initially projected to cost $55 million. As council’s new finance chairman and deputy mayor, Wyatt is trying to paint himself as a vision of "strong fiscal prudence."
To that end, the 10-year council veteran, who may or may not run for mayor in 2014 if Sam Katz decides to hang up the chain of office, ordered a series of financial status updates on all city construction projects that cost $10 million or more. Or more accurately, Winnipeg chief financial officer Mike Ruta decided to begin reissuing these updates — once commonplace at city hall — and Wyatt ensured the decision would be well-publicized.
In any event, the first of these updates was presented to council’s finance committee on Monday. And lo and behold, everything except that troublesome Waverley West project is "on time and on budget."
The problem is, there are no baselines for any of these claims when you look at the initial batch of reports. Anything can be on time if you start the clock at zero. Likewise, anything can be on budget if you start with the estimate in your hands right now.
Hence, the plainly ludicrous notion the Winnipeg Police Service’s new downtown digs are on time and on budget, when in fact the project has been plagued by cost increases and other unpleasant surprises ever since the city decided to mothball the Public Safety Building on Princess Street and renovate the warehouse portion of the former Canada Post building on Graham Avenue instead.
As many Winnipeggers are aware, the decision to spend $194 million to consolidate 14 separate police divisions under one downtown roof started out in 2006 as a $17-million plan to replace the Tyndall-stone cladding on the Public Safety Building.
Replacing the crumbling stone exterior soon proved to be way more expensive once the city factored in the cost of housing police in temporary digs in other offices.
When the cost of the recladding flew out of control — 2007 estimates had it at more than $40 million — the city placed the project on hold. So the police started poking around the Canada Post building in 2008 and later decided to buy both the warehouse and the adjoining office tower.
Originally, the renovation job was pegged at $100 million, in addition to the purchase. But the city soon found initial engineering estimates were wildly inaccurate, forcing conractor Caspian Construction to gut the building and increase the estimate by tens of millions.
The $194-million total budget now includes a $137-million construction cost, a $29-million purchase price, $7 million worth of interest and a $21-million expense for moving in hundreds of police officers by 2014.
When it’s complete, there’s little doubt the new cop shop will be a fantastic facility. But no self-respecting official can declare this thing "on time and on budget."
All the reports and news releases the city could ever issue won’t disguise the fact this project started out six years ago — at less than 10 per cent of its current cost.
When it’s done in two more years, the city will remain the same vision of strong fiscal prudence.