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Burnaby mayor defends council's transparency over pricey RCMP project

Mayor and council unanimously approved a $229-million RCMP facility replacement last week but very little about the project has been discussed in public.
rcmp-building02
Burnaby RCMP's headquarters are too small for its current operations, according to a 2020 assessment.

Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley says city council was as transparent as it could be about a $229-million RCMP facility replacement project approved at a cost $67 million higher than its original estimate.

Council unanimously approved the project at last week’s open council meeting, but very little about the project has been discussed in public.

Behind closed doors

The site at 4038, 4066, 4086 and 4244 Norland Ave. was chosen after years of closed-door meetings and in-camera reports.

James Lota, the city's general manager of lands and facilities, told the NOW in September the secrecy had to do with land valuation.

"There's potential negotiations that could be affected by where we put it," he said.

But the closed-door discussions continued after the site was picked and the contract awarded in July.

The estimated cost of the facility at that time was $162.5 million, according to a July 10 report.

When project team came back to council on Oct. 30, however, it had jumped to $208.7 million.

That report said multiple factors had driven up the cost, including drastic fluctuations in construction material costs, BC Building Code changes, upgraded RCMP standards (including transitioning to electric vehicles) and the city’s "aggressive" environmental targets.

Nonetheless, staff concluded the proposed project would provide "good value to the city."

But that report was never discussed in public.

When it came up at the Oct. 30 meeting, Hurley took it off the agenda without explanation or discussion.

The project didn't come back to another public meeting until last Monday – $20.6 million more expensive.

Cost concerns

While the Oct. 30 report said staff had rejected expanded underground parking as too expensive, the Jan. 29 report recommended paying $17.4 million more to include it.

There was no explanation from staff or council for why the earlier plan had disappeared from the Oct. 30 meeting or why the project had come back with the recommendation for expanded underground parking.

But both were the result of more closed-door discussions, according to the mayor.

In an interview last week, Hurley told the NOW he pulled the project from the Oct. 30 meeting because he had concerns about the cost.

The city then hired a third-party cost consultant to look at the project.

When asked why his cost concerns and the request to hire a third-party consultant had to be discussed behind closed doors, Hurley said, “I’m not sure now. I would have to go back and look at the record.”

Underground parking for $17.4 million

In his interview with the NOW, Hurley explained why it makes financial sense to spend the extra $17.4 million for expanded underground parking for the RCMP, even though it was originally rejected as too expensive.

He said the parking lot the RCMP would have to have used for surface level parking is valued at around $30 million – significantly more than the price of extra parking underground.  

"And that land value is only going to go up in years to come," Hurley said. "Council didn't want to waste that land in case we wanted to do something else with it."

But that explanation isn't included in any public report and was never discussed except behind closed doors.

Hurley shed little light on what happened behind the scenes between the public meetings on Oct. 30 and Jan. 29 to make staff change its recommendation about the underground parking.

When asked whether it was the cost consultant or council that wanted it, Hurley said it was council.

At some point during in-camera discussions, Hurley said council had asked how much the above-ground parking lot was worth compared to the underground parking cost.

When asked who, specifically, had asked that question and why those discussion didn't happen in public, Hurley said they did – they were "brought to the open meeting" and voted on on Jan. 29.

Besides showing up in the report without explanation, however, the recommendation to expand the underground parking was not discussed at that meeting.

Security features

At last Monday's meeting, Hurley said the city had "no option to go outside of much of what's been done here" because of standards for police buildings and requirements "set by the courts" for what must be in a police building.

Coun. Pietro Calendino echoed Hurley’s sentiments.

"We don't have a choice," he said.

No one mentioned the extra $17.4 million for the underground parking.

When asked if staff knew about the security requirements for an RCMP building when they came up with the original $162.5 million, Hurley said, "They would have known, but they wouldn't have had it confirmed, I don't believe exactly, the exact requirements that came with the security and the RCMP requirements."

When asked if the project team knew about the requirements before it put forward its Oct. 30 plan, Hurley said, "They would have known some of it, but I also think some things came back that were different."

Ultimately, Hurley’s cost concerns and the hiring of a third-party cost consultant ended in council approving a more expensive project.

“Maybe it made the price more realistic, and that’s what we’re interested in is cost certainty,” Hurley said.

Does that mean the price in the Oct. 30 report was not realistic?

"Well, I don’t know if it was," Hurley said. "It might have been some person's opinion that didn't agree with another opinion, so the cost came out where we felt they were comfortable and were giving value."

Transparency

Most of the discussions about the new RCMP headquarters have happened behind closed doors even as the estimated cost has jumped by $67 million.

At the Jan. 29 meeting said "some of the security details and requested information provided to council had to be provided in a closed session of council as required under the Community Charter."

When asked if he and council had held as many discussions in public as they could, Hurley told the NOW:

“I think we did as much in public as we were able to do, given the nature of the building."

Follow Cornelia Naylor on X/Twitter @CorNaylor
Email cnaylor@burnabynow.com