Federal minister and mayors agree to keep their wastewater funding talks on the down low for now
By Mark Squibb | Vol 7 No. 16 (Aug. 15, 2019)
“It was a very good meeting,” said federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Francois-Philippe Champagne when questioned by reporters Monday about a meeting between himself, St. Johns South - Mount Pearl MP Seamus O’Regan, and the mayors of Paradise, St. Johns, and Mount Pearl about the looming deadline of the 2020 federal wastewater treatment regulations.
And that’s about as much information as reporters got on the matter.
The meeting followed a press conference and demand last month by the mayors for more help from Ottawa when it comes to upgrading the region’s wastewater treatment plant at Riverhead to make it compliant with federal environmental standards.
“We all came there with an open mind. I kept saying that pointing fingers at each other will not get one job in Newfoundland and Labrador. My resolve from day one as Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, thanks to the leadership of our local MP’s, whether it’s (St. John’s East) Nick Whalen, whether it’s (Avalon MP) Ken McDonald, or Minister O’Regan, everyone has been talking about Riverhead since day one when I became minister, so we made sure we put that on a fast track, because we wanted to provide clean water to the people of St. Johns,” said Champagne.
“And I am still resolved to get that done,” Champagne said. “The best way is still to talk to each other. We explored a number of possible solutions with the provincial government, with our municipal partners.”
Increases in the cost of the secondary treatment facility have increased, totaling now a cold, hard $255 million, up about $32 million from prior estimates. The federal and provincial governments’ level of commitment to the project has remained the same, meaning the bottom-line cost for the respective municipalities has increased greatly.
And, as with any construction project, it’s likely that costs will continue to rise.
The federal government is committed to covering roughly 44 per cent of the cost, with the provincial government covering about 23 per cent, leaving municipalities to cover a third of the projected costs.
Champagne told reporters that Ottawa is not to take the blame for the federally-mandated regulations.
“Like I said, pointing fingers won’t get one job. What I said is don’t always look at the one who puts in the most, which in this case is the federal government. What we said is that all partners, we need to be creative in our solutions, we need to be resolved,” he said. “I am only one of three partners.”
Later, he noted that it was not the federal government’s job to tender the work, making the federal government not entirely culpable if municipalities cannot follow the federal regulations in due time, and instead highlighted Ottawa’s financial commitment.
“The federal government is not the one contracting; the federal government does not provide contracts, does not retain contractors to do the work. We only provide funding,” Champagne said. “At the time we committed to one-third, because that has been, historically, the level of funding that the federal government would put in. That level of funding has increased significantly, we are well above, I think we’re close to 44 percent. So, my commitment is certainly there; that’s why I was here today… If anyone wants to question our commitment, just look at the amounts, and you’ll see that we are the major funder of this infrastructure; that’s not very common, I can assure you, if you look across Canada.”
As to specifics of any solutions discussed, details were null.
“It would not be the right time now to go into all those details. I will let them reflect on what we’ve discussed this morning,” said Champagne. “We have a common resolve.”
Mount Pearl Mayor Dave Aker noted the meeting was a positive one.
“It was a good meeting. It was positive. As opposed to looking behind at what’s happened, we’re trying to focus on how we move forward,” Aker told The Pearl, crediting Champagne, O’Regan, and Dempster for having open and honest discussions about the issue.
“I think we have some options we can look at, and it was agreed that we can look at that behind the scenes rather than in front of the cameras,” Aker added.
Although he’s pleased the federal government has taken on almost half of the total cost, he’s worried about the likely increase in construction costs.
“We’re a bit leery that once the final costs come in, it may be more than what we’ve estimated,” he allowed. “I think right now what we’re looking at, in engineering terms, is a Class B estimate. When you look at estimates at this stage, that could vary by anywhere from 25 to 40 per cent.”
On a $225 million-dollar project, those little increases could mean millions of dollars in additional costs.
Asker pointed out that looking beyond the construction costs, the City is also looking at an annual $1.5 million dollar annual operating cost.
What the project could mean for taxpayers is yet to be determined, but higher taxes are not off the table.
“Now I can’t forecast five years down the road, if that additional cost is picked up by tax increases, but if we don’t look at that scenario, we’re either going to have to pick up that money by deferring other infrastructure projects, which are badly in need, or we’re going to have to cut back in other areas,” said Aker, who anticipated it could be as long as 2025 before the wastewater improvements are in place.
Champagne could not confirm a timeline for the completion of the work, or if it would be completed in time to meet the 2020 deadline, only to say that time was of the essence.
“I don’t believe in artificial deadlines. I believe more in working together,” he said when asked by reporters about when the project might be completed.
The 2020 deadline for the municipalities to become compliant, meanwhile, and the potential fines for not meeting that deadline, remain in place.