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Staff delays over bridge costs vex politicians

Aug 02 2012

Several Victoria council members are frustrated with senior staff, who waited two months before informing them about escalating costs for the Johnson Street Bridge replacement project.

Internal memos and emails reveal warnings from the finance department in early January indicating the price tag for the new bridge could climb much higher than the original estimate of $77 million.

Council and the public were informed in March about costs reaching $92.8 million, but documents from Jan. 6 show staff already had a good indication the costs could reach that high.

Council had several discussions about costs over the next two months, but they were not updated about looming increases.

"I think it's completely inappropriate for staff to withhold information of that importance from council, particularly when council debated aspects of the bridge during the two months that that information was withheld," said Coun. Ben Isitt.

The first indication of rising prices came from Susanne Thompson, the city's assistant finance director when she wrote to Mike Lai, the project director at that time for the Johnson Street Bridge. Lai now works for the District of Saanich.

Thompson notes in her Jan. 6 memo that the project could reach $91.25 million and recommends informing "council as soon as possible" in order to approve a new budget.

Council received an update about the bridge in an email on Jan. 19, but there was no mention of the rising costs, according to the message from Lai.

Minutes later, finance director Brenda Warner wrote corporate services director Kevin Greig in an email, indicating she has "concerns that council is not being advised of any budget concerns."

Documents also show that city manager Gail Stephens wanted to go to council only once to make any budget changes, but some councillors would have liked to be informed sooner.

"A simple memo will get you that information as soon as possible and then council knows what's coming," said Coun. Lisa Helps.

Coun. Shellie Gudgeon recognizes that staff should likely have informed council sooner, but does "not want to look backward at this point." Instead, she wants to focus on getting the project completed on time and on budget.

"Obviously, transparency is important; it's critical and it didn't occur," she said.

Both Isitt and Helps tried in February to persuade council to consider a less-expensive bridge replacement, but the idea was shot down. Those two councillors say skyrocketing costs may have changed some politicians' minds.

dspalding@timescolonist.com