By Doug Hallett
City council members are concerned they aren’t getting enough of a say in setting priorities for capital spending by the city.
A spring workshop at which staff and councillors were supposed to discuss capital budgeting was cancelled at short notice. Since that time it seems councillors haven’t “been able to have the same weight of prioritizing as staff have had,” Coun. Cam Guthrie complained Tuesday at council’s first meeting on the 2014 capital budget and a new 10-year capital forecast.
“I think we need more transparency” when it comes to setting priorities for capital spending, said Mayor Karen Farbridge.
“For us it is a black box,” Farbridge told finance officials at Tuesday’s meeting. “I want to challenge you to make that more transparent for us.”
Council needs more “context” for the capital budget and 10-year capital forecast, she said. She told staff to “give us a little more lens into what happens in that black box.”
The mayor’s comments, reflecting complaints made by some councillors about spending priorities, came after top city officials outlined a 10-year, $546-million capital forecast that includes almost $80 million in capital spending in 2014.Councillors were told that two projects – a $34-million upgrading of Guelph Police headquarters and the city’s almost $12-million share of the cost of new public health facilities in Guelph and Orangeville – will cause the city’s total outstanding debt to rise to about $120 million by 2015.
However, the city’s debt is projected to drop to $64 million by 2023 in the new 10-year capital forecast, which doesn’t include major projects such as a new downtown library or a south end recreation centre. This downward debt trend could leave room for taking on debt for major projects that “could happen in the next three, five or 10 years,” said Al Horsman, the city’s chief financial officer.
South end residents don’t understand the absence of the long-awaited south end recreation centre from the 10-year capital forecast, said Ward 6 councillor Karl Wettstein. He said residents are asking him, “If it’s not in the capital plan, how can it be called a priority?”
The city has “basically a process that doesn’t make sense to people,” he said.
Fellow Ward 6 councillor Todd Dennis indicated his dissatisfaction with the south end recreation centre situation by voting consistently Tuesday against all sorts of budget motions.
City CAO Ann Pappert said city hall is working on planning for the central library and south end recreation projects to try to make them “shovel ready,” so the city could take advantage of any new infrastructure funding programs from higher levels of government.
Councillors questioned Police Chief Bryan Larkin about a new, much higher price tag for the police headquarters upgrading. The project’s cost has soared from the $13.6 million approved by council in 2012 to a total of $34 million, including $20.4 million in new money being added in the new budget.
“I must admit I’m pretty shell-shocked by this,” given that a new central library is “still somewhere down the road,” said Coun. Maggie Laidlaw.
Larkin said a functional audit of the downtown police headquarters that was done in 2010 was later found to be flawed.
“Frankly, the police service made a number of errors in the functional audit,” he told council.
Last November, the police board agreed to delay the project because of these problems, Larkin said. This May, it looked at a cost-benefit analysis of four options presented by an architect. One option involved building a new headquarters outside of the downtown core, which would be “slightly” more expensive than the proposed $34-million upgrading, he said.
The upgrading includes additions, a reorientation of the police station’s front entrance from Fountain Street to Wyndham Street, and a restructuring that will allow fourth, fifth and sixth floors to be added in the future when they are needed, he said. Inside there will be changes to the prisoner quarters, forensic lab, heating and air conditioning system, and other things.
There will be community consultation on the upgrading project, and a business case will be prepared for the city before construction gets the go-ahead, he said.
Police officials have been working with Horsman over the past 1 ½ years “to ensure we do this right,” Larkin said.
By Doug Hallett