My tax dollars at work. It’s the kind of obviously sarcastic remark one might utter after reading about wasteful government spending.
In case you missed it, my colleague Mike Howell reported last week that the Vancouver Fire Department has spent almost $1 million on five “gender neutral” washrooms. Four of the five new washrooms have been built at a cost of $150,000 to $200,000 each, with a fifth to be built soon, according to Mark Engler, deputy chief of operations for Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, who Howell interviewed for his story.
My first reaction to the story: The city sure got hosed on this one.
My second reaction: Did these retrofits include a sauna or steam room, whirlpool or Jacuzzi to justify the gargantuan tab?
No. Just a sink, toilet and shower, apparently.
To be fair, there were compounding issues such as asbestos removal, and salaries for a project manager and architect, but nothing in anyone’s mind that could justify what appears to be an out-of-whack bill for the job. Your average bathroom renovation is typically $10,000. (Call any contractor and without even looking at your bathroom, they’ll toss out the 10-grand figure.) Even multiplied by five, to factor in the unique aspects of an aging firehall, that’s still a lot of dough at $50,000.
Interestingly, the washroom retrofits didn’t stem from a female firefighter’s complaint about firehall facilities.
So what gives? Engler told Howell “it’s the right thing to do.”
But guess what? The almost $1-million tab is incorrect, says the city. When I asked the city for a breakdown on Friday, the city was quick to note Engler’s figures were wrong. (Howell has him on tape so not a misquote on his part.)
It’s much lower — in fact, almost half , according to information from the city’s finance department, which the communications department forwarded to me.
(Howell is away this week so I thought I’d follow up on his story.)
The finance department reported that over the last three years, the city retrofitted showers, washrooms and locker areas in four firehalls. The cost for four washroom retrofits ranged from $56k to $94k. The city is currently working on a retrofit of Firehall #6. The project, I’m told, is in the tender stage. That sounds more realistic. But it’s also unsettling.
Why is there such a whopping disparity between what Engler told Howell and the city’s finance department figures?
I called Engler Monday to find out. But he’s not talking or he’s not being allowed to talk to the media (“Your request has been forwarded to corporate communications,” he responded to me in an email), which is an interesting turn of events given the city’s communications department directed Howell to talk to the fire department for his story in the first place. The fire department’s spokesman then directed Howell to Engler.
I’d hate to think he got it so wrong. The city didn’t provide the reconciliation I requested to compare Engler’s figures and the finance department’s because apparently none exists. Instead, the communications department put me in touch with Bill Aujla, the city’s general manager for Real Estate and Facilities Management, who said he has no idea where Engler got his numbers. (I might add that our interview was on speakerphone with at least one communications person listening in.) “I can’t speak to where those original numbers came from,” Aujla said late Monday. “It seemed also high to us… so we went back and tracked all the costs through [our SAP accounting system].”
And what they came up with was an average of $82k, Aujla said.
So again, how did Engler get it so wrong?
“Mark didn’t do the work and I’m not sure Mark gave those numbers, which is why it’s a concern,” Aujla said. “Certainly, when I spoke to Mark he acknowledged to me that he wasn’t sure where those figures came from.”
Whoa! Is that a suggestion the reporter got it wrong, I asked, mentioning again that Howell has Engler on tape repeatedly confirming the higher figures. Gobsmacked by the amounts, Howell wanted to make sure he heard correctly, which is why he asked Engler to confirm it a few times.
“The key message is I don’t know where the $200,000 figure came from,” Aujla repeated.
Is this a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing? Not sure, but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence when you get two versions of costs from the same organization.
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