The town will be applying this month for another round of funding to complete the Lorne Street flood control project – but that decision didn’t sit well with at least two Sackville councillors who voted against moving forward with the third phase of the project.
Councillors Bruce Phinney and Shawn Mesheau were the two dissenters in a 6-2 vote on the matter last week, with Phinney saying he’s lost confidence in town management’s competence over this project and Mesheau raising concerns about the quick turnaround time in being pressured to make such a big decision.
Phinney said he no longer has faith in Crandall Engineering, the firm that has been overseeing the project, and has recommended “they be removed and replaced by another engineering firm.”
Phinney said he’s also been starting to have concerns about several senior members of town staff who have been managing the project – including the town engineer, senior manager of corporate projects, and chief administrative officer – and called for their dismissal as well.
He placed the blame on these three individuals for what he called a “$525,000 mistake,” a reference to the recently-discovered contamination and subsequent clean-up on a piece of land the town acquired on an ‘as is’ basis from CN Rail as part of phase two of the stormwater retention pond project.
Coun. Bill Evans took offense to Phinney’s comments, pointing out it was unfortunate Phinney felt the need to criticize staff’s competence and hard work over this project.
Evans said addressing the flooding issues in the community was a top priority council established several years ago. A stormwater mitigation plan soon followed and funding was applied for. The initial design, however, came in significantly over budget and the town was forced to scale back the plans during phase two, with the hopes there would be further funding opportunities to complete the project.
“We are doing something that we said we were going to do when we approved it but weren't able to afford to do,” he said. “Now that money's available, we are expressing interest in getting that money. This is an obvious thing to do and to sit here and take cheap shots at staff who are not in a position to defend themselves is inappropriate.”
Mayor John Higham also cautioned Phinney that “there is no immunity for what you say here” in council chambers and legal action could be taken against him for his words.
"If you wish to complete the plan, we have an option"
The motion approved by council last week gives the green light to the town to submit an application for funding consideration under the Integrated Bilateral Agreement for the Investing in Canada Infrastructure program for phase three of the Lorne Street project. Coming with an estimated pricetag of about $4.6 million, with the municipal share expected to come in around $1.5 million, the funding would be used to upgrade the former Pickard Quarry for use as a retention pond, new street and railway crossings, ditching control structures, and a second larger retention pond behind the community garden on Charles Street.
Coun. Shawn Mesheau said he was frustrated over being pressured into making such a quick decision on this application and would have liked to explore the idea of bringing the provincial government on board to also partner on the project by applying for upgrades to its aboiteaux, a piece of the puzzle that needs to be completed to make the overall project more effective.
“It would give me more confidence that we’re going to see this part of the whole process finished off in the right way as opposed to being just left with retention ponds and really no place for the water to go,” he said. “We’re being put behind the eight-ball to make a decision . . . we need the province to make a commitment.”
Chief administrative officer Phil Handrahan seemed frustrated with the criticism coming from Phinney and Mesheau.
He said staff only learned in May that the cost-shared funding program would be going ahead, with a June 28 deadline for municipalities to apply. But Handrahan pointed out that the town stands a good chance of being considered for the funding, since it is able to get an application in for a “shovel-ready project” by that date.
“The good part about it is staff already had a design in place and ready so that when the money was there, we did have the shovel-ready project to go ahead with. The reality is you’re having this discussion tonight because we are ready and staff have done their job.”
The CAO said staff is only doing the job council directed them to do and is simply trying to put a plan in place to address the community’s flooding issues.
“If it scares you, don’t do it,” he told council. “Sit back and do nothing and we’ll just see what happens.”
“But if you wish to complete the plan, we have an option where there is potentially up to 75 per cent funding from other partners and we’re trying to cash in and do the project at a time that’s most cost effective for the citizens.”
Evans said he is thrilled the town has the opportunity to apply for another round of funding to complete the initial project.
“This fell in our lap again and I’m hugely excited that that possibility, which we would require to do this right, is there,” he said.
Evans said this will help prepare the town for a “worst-case scenario,” a flooding situation that has not yet occurred and with any luck will never occur.
“But if it does, and everything lines up badly, we will have the capacity to mitigate it.”
Evans compared it to having fire insurance on a home and never needing to use it – but it’s there just in case.
“Most of the time, it’s going to look like we don’t need this,” he continued. “The retention ponds will be empty most of the time and even when there’s significant rainfall events, they’re not all going to be full.”
Mayor John Higham spoke about the importance of being able to finish up this project, pointing out that much of the discussions around flood mitigation on Lorne Street stemmed from a letter the town received in 2014 from CN, threatening legal action against the municipality for flooding of the rail line.
Although CN eventually backed off from its threat, it brought a focus to the legal responsibility of the town, particularly if flooding caused a shutdown.
“Any train stalled here affects a supply line that goes across North America,” said Higham, noting delays could result in millions of dollars of potential liability.
And he said the town’s liability insurance might not cover such an event if it’s not meeting the industrial standards.
“The reality of the insurance industry is, if you do not build to what is a one-in-100-year event that you’re aware of and know of, then your insurance doesn’t apply because you’ve consciously chose not to build to the acceptable standard of the day.”
Taxes might be raised to pay for project but that’s yet to be determined: treasurer
Sackville treasurer Michael Beal said residents might see a tax increase over the next couple of years to finance the final phase of the Lorne Street project – but that’s only in a worst-case scenario.
“We could have to look at a one to one-and-a-half cent increase the year after we borrow . . . but I’m not saying that’s guaranteed because there are other factors that could result in that being reduced,” he said.
Beal said the figures he has put together for the project estimate Sackville’s share of the project at 33 per cent, although there is a chance the municipal share might only come in at 27 per cent. This would mean the town would only need to contribute $1.24 million instead of $1.52 million.
As well, his estimates indicate a borrowing cost of five per cent; but chances are, the interest rate would be lower than that.
The actual costs of construction, based on tender results, might also come in lower, said Beal, and the town could also potentially use money in the capital reserve fund.
“From a financial perspective, I feel we can fit this within our overall. I feel that, from running the numbers, that we can run this with minimal effect. It would extend our projected debt reduction plan by another further two to three years . .. . but it’s part of progress.”