North Bay City Councillor Gary Gardiner is not impressed with the way proposed projects are handled at City Hall, especially when it comes to some of the big-ticket items on recent council agendas that will have lasting effects on taxpayers.
When it comes to the over-budget Main Street reconstruction project, Gardiner says he would prefer to open it up to "find out what we can eliminate that structurally or functionally makes no difference so we could cut money out of that budget."
See related: Council paves way for Main Street rehab despite inflated cost
Council unanimously awarded an $8.85-million contract for the project to Greater Sudbury's MCA Contracting Ltd., coming in more than $2 million above the estimate from March 2022, when the construction cost was pegged at $6.2 million.
As downtown property owners, Gardiner and Coun. Chris Mayne declared conflicts during Tuesday's regular meeting and neither spoke nor cast their vote for or against the Main Street reconstruction project.
See also: City puts Main Street reconstruction project out to tender
And: All Main Street reconstruction bids come in over budget
Five bids for the construction phase were received with the lowest coming from MCA. Council also approved an engineering fee increase of $80,000 to R.V. Anderson Associates Limited for work the company completed during tendering and post-tendering process. The $2 million in additional funding required for the completion of this project will come from two municipal reserves.
In the days since the vote, Gardiner has been expressing disappointment with the way the Main Street reconstruction file was handled and ultimately approved. Now that the construction contract has been awarded, Gardiner is sharing his thoughts via social media and in an interview with BayToday on how best to adjust the approach this council takes in tackling these transformational projects.
"In the future, decisions such as this need to come to committee first for fulsome discussion, especially on alternatives. Could value engineering have reduced the cost? Absolutely," Gardiner says. "We need to change the decision-making process at City Hall."
"For example," Gardiner elaborates, "we've had designers and architects design stuff with no respect to our budgets or our financial situation."
He points to the project drawings and observes the use of two different types of exposed concrete aggregate for the sidewalk design, necessitating the use of two different types of concrete mix and the increased labour that goes with it.
"Here we have something very expensive that absolutely makes no difference, in terms of the functionality of Main Street. It's a sidewalk that's covered in snow for half the year, for crying out loud. That's an extravagant expense, in my mind, that's not justifiable when you're $2 million over budget."
"I know there are some concerns that we've heard from the community, we are approximately $2 million over the original budgeted amount for this project," said Mayor Peter Chirico during Tuesday's meeting. "The previous council allowed a year coming out of Covid for downtown businesses to get back on their feet. Unfortunately, during that time we also experienced some of the highest inflation rates that we have in the last 40-50 years — which have led to higher gas prices and just about higher everything, including the increase in this project's costs, originally looked at in 2018."
"I understand why the costs have increased. Everything has increased," Gardiner continues. "We could have gone back and tried to bring the costs down. That would have been prudent and wise but we didn't do that. I don't know why there is resistance to that.
"We knew a month ago that this project came in way over budget. Staff had a chance to bring this to committee if they wanted to, so we could have a robust discussion amongst councillors. Instead, they waited until the last minute and they bring it to council as a binary decision: either you go ahead or it's scrapped. I hate when they put us in that position. I'm going to work from now on to avoid that. If I had been able to vote on that, I would have asked for it to be referred back to committee right away."
Gardiner's concerns extend beyond the higher Main Street project price. "I will be suggesting to the Mayor that the arena bid, when it does arrive, goes to committee and not directly to Council for a vote. This is too important," Gardiner adds.
Just months ago, the overall project cost, including $340,000 for engineering and design plus contingencies, was given an estimated budget line of $7.6 million. That includes $690,000 in NOHFC funding and approximately $3 million in Ontario Community infrastructure funding (OCIF). Total project costs include the cost of construction, design fees, and engineering consultant fees.
City staff reviewed the details of the tender submissions to ensure that specified criteria were met. With Tuesday's award of the contract to the lowest bidder, the two-year Main Street reconstruction project — already delayed one year at the request of members of Downtown North Bay & Waterfront — should get underway sometime in May, pending confirmation from the contractor.
See: City asked to push $6.2M Main Street project to 2023 as downtown businesses recover from pandemic
See also: Report: Main Street 'beyond rehabilitation'
The project involves the reconstruction of Main Street from Cassells Street to Sherbrooke Street and Ferguson Street from Main Street to Oak Street, as outlined in the North Bay Downtown Waterfront Master Plan (DWMP).
This will be the first major renovation to Main Street in nearly 40 years. The work will involve the replacement of surface infrastructure including a new asphalt roadway, brushed concrete and the exposed aggregate sidewalks Gardiner referred to, as well as curb and gutter, retaining walls, stairs, railings, benches, traffic lights, festoon lighting and other ancillary works.