Renfrew – Mike Asselin, Renfrew’s former Director of Public Works and Engineering, is set to retire in early 2024, but before he makes his final exit from the town, he has been tasked with one of the most challenging projects he has faced in more than 15 years.
He is overseeing the completion of the Ma-Te-Way expansion project, attempting to reign in the ballooning costs and keeping the work on schedule for an early 2024 opening.
It is a project that started out with so much promise and excitement and has now become the major butt of jokes and cynicism among many residents who can still not rationalize how a $16 million addition to the town’s major recreation centre became a nearly $30-milliion project that will be remembered by many as the $30-million recreation complex with no pool.
In a rapidly evolving situation, Renfrew council has continued to deal with the project and hired a company to act as project manager to ensure it is completed according to the new schedule as well as approved the hiring of a project management specialist for the municipality.
Among the many ongoing challenges Mr. Asselin is dealing with, it seems each day brings a new financial headache for himself as well as the members of council.
The topic has also been ongoing throughout September and been the focus of various meetings.
Meeting with council in mid-September, he brought forward two new estimates for work that has to be completed prior to the parking lot being paved this year, factoring in the harsh conditions of the winter season.
“There was a pipe going under the new proposed building out to Lindsay Field and during excavation the pipe was broken and it has to be completed before paving takes place,” he said. “At the time of the report we had not yet received estimates for the capping and grouting of the water main and the disinfectant required to complete the project. Since then, we have received all the estimates and it now comes out to $86,500.”
Shortly after council passed an amendment to change the amount from the original cost of $67,400 to $86,500, Councillor Andrew Dick asked who damaged the pipe.
“BEI was on site and damaged the pipe and reported it to Buttcon at the time,” Mr. Asselin replied. “However, no action was taken until tonight with this motion.”
“So, if BEI damaged the pipe, then why are we paying for it instead of BEI?” Coun. Dick asked.
Both Mr. Asselin and CAO Robert Tremblay explained the pipe was not identified in any blueprints or charts associated with the original 1994 construction of the adjoining field. BEI was doing exploratory work but the watermain location was unknown and there was no evidence of it. Because of that, the town is responsible for the costs of the repairs.
When Mr. Asselin introduced the second item, a landscaping project in the amount of $145,917, he told council this request was an anomaly.
“This kind of expenditure has not been brought before council in the past, but this is a move to appear more transparent,” he explained. “When Buttcon tenders out for services and it receives an estimate from a non-union shop, the town typically issues a purchase order. However, Buttcon added additional services including the building of a retaining wall and that brings the total up to $240,394.”
He explained the project included landscape elements estimated to cost $98,000. With the design complete and the current market conditions, prices for this work have increased to $240,394. This is a difference in the anticipated budget of $142,394.
“I notified the treasurer and the overage will be covered by the project contingency fund,” he said. “We felt it was important to bring this directly to council for transparency issues and it is time sensitive and it is work that has to be done.”
The remaining balance in the contingency fund was $507,010 prior to council authorizing the new expenses. The combined cost, less watermain costs of $67,477 and $145,917 for landscaping and related services reduced the fund to $293,616.
Councillor Loses Patience
Mayor Tom Sidney asked for any questions from council before he called for a vote, and it was no surprise Coun. Dick raised his hand. He has quickly gained a reputation as being a financial hawk in terms of spending tax dollars and he took a momentary pause before addressing the issue.
“So, what you are saying Director Asselin, and this is the bottom line, but what you are telling us is that we don’t have a say,” he said. “What started out as a $98,000 project is now $240,000. So you are just being nice and coming to council and telling us this is happening. I just want to make it clear that this is what you said to us.”
Mr. Asselin appeared to be searching for an answer when CAO Tremblay jumped in and spoke directly to Coun. Dick.
“This work is being done by non-unionized forces, so the town is paying for it,” he said. “Although Buttcon got the quotes, we are going to be paying for it. Because we are paying for it directly, and because of the overage, the town is paying for it. We find this is important to be transparent for an accountability issue. This is an overage and being carried out by a non-union shop so we have to pay direct and it has to be done to complete the project. We can start playing the blame-game, but in the end the work has to be done.”
It was obvious Coun. Dick was not satisfied with the explanation.
“So, here is where my frustration lies,” he said. “We do a budget, we approve things and then whenever something is brought before council, and it is over-budget … what that means is that the taxpayer and council are suffering from this because someone is not doing their job correctly when they are doing their quotes.
“It is the most frustrating thing to constantly be seeing things that are brought back because it is always over budget. So, I am just going to lay my frustration out there because I am getting tired of it and eventually, I am going to start voting ‘no’ to everything I can that is over budget. It’s just not fair. It’s not fair to council, it’s not fair to the mayor and it’s not fair to any of us. So I just wanted council to know how I am feeling in an open forum.”
Reeve Peter Emon explained a third-party review is currently underway and it has become evident the current staff complement does not meet the requirements for current large-scale projects. He said an internal review of staff will highlight areas of strength and weaknesses and make appropriate changes where needed. He said new staff protocols will include monthly financial reports to council so that major overages are caught early.
Coun. Dick thanked Mr. Tremblay and Reeve Emon for their explanations and the commitment by all of council to address these shortcomings for both council and all ratepayers.
“I also want to thank Mr. Asselin for doing a commendable job in his new role in overseeing this project because since you signed on, we are getting timely reports, our questions are being answered and you are doing a great job, so again I want to thank you for your efforts. To CAO Tremblay, I also want to thank you as your suggestions are making changes and I want you to know I expressed my frustration live on-the-air because I am feeling frustrated. I am sure there are many residents out there that are also feeling frustrated.”
True to their word, council entered into a contract and secured the services of Colliers Project Management for the Ma-Te-Way project at a cost of $86,260. One of the company’s primary responsibilities in the next four months is to provide precise technical analysis of the remaining installations and provide written technical reports to Mr. Asselin.
Updated Schedule Presented
During the September 19, Fire, Recreation and Community Services Committee meeting, Mr. Asselin presented an updated schedule including current financial reports. According to Treasurer Erin Broome’s analysis, the project is currently at the $29.7 million mark, about $13.2 million over the original estimate.
Both Mr. Asselin and Mr. Tremblay explained the rapid rise of inflation and labour costs have skyrocketed since the first shovel hit the ground. The COVID pandemic not only contributed, but a provincial labour strike across the construction industry forced the project to come to a halt. All these factors contributed to the original opening date of December 31, 2022 being pushed back to early 2024.
Project Management Specialist
During last Tuesday’s council meeting, council authorized the immediate hiring of a Project Management Specialist with a starting salary of $105,184 per year.
Unlike traditional municipal hiring practices of taking anywhere from two to six months to eventually hire an individual with precise skills in a managerial position, both Mayor Sidney and council are hopeful to have someone in place and brought up to speed within the next month.
When hired, the new project manager, Colliers and A/Director Asselin will, “rush to the finish line” to ensure all pieces are put in motion to make the proposed deadline.
The current schedule anticipates occupancy in two stages. The main building and arena is stage one and the Cultural Centre and Medicine Wheel is stage two. Realistically, the team anticipates substantial completion on stage one by the end of year and is working to see if an advanced date can be achieved. Stage one also includes the base building which houses the arena, gymnasium, administration offices, multipurpose rooms and tenant spaces.
Coun. Dick left council with a final thought after Mr. Asselin presented his most recent update.
“We have spent most of our time talking about costs and what we should have done, instead of communicating the message of what an amazing complex we will have when it opens,” he said. “Believe me, nobody is more concerned about the spending of taxpayer’s money, but I’ve looked around the province and similar projects are starting right now with a price tag of $50 million to start. We will have a facility that will be the envy of the county and it will help Renfrew expand and develop.”
By Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Oct 04, 2023 at 09:07