Why I’m Voting The Way I’m Voting

Regina Water War - Referendum 2013So… I’m voting “Yes” in the wastewater referendum. I know. “Prairie Dog guy is voting against a P3, big effing surprise.” It’s a no-brainer so I wasn’t even planning to write this. But hey, the Leader Post thinks you care how their financial editor, Bruce Johnstone, is voting (spoilers: he’s voting No… who saw that coming?!?), so indulge me.

There is one element in my decision that might surprise my fellows out here in Saskatchewan’s lonely, wasteland of the left, it’s that the public-private partnership isn’t really the issue for me. I have a business degree¹ and was indoctrinated young into that free-market-does-it-best thinking. I can see the case for a P3. In fact, if this referendum was for a 30-year, Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain public-private partnership for the stadium, I’d be voting whichever way would hand that albatross off to the private sector fastest and for longest. I mean what’s the worst that could happen? The private sector totally screws things up and the Riders have to keep playing football in the perfectly good stadium they already have?

Sure, maybe all the academics I’ve spoken to are right and P3s over the long run wind up being more expensive than public projects… so what? The city signs us up to pay way more than we should for a sports complex? Amazing. That’s what governments do. Waste our money on dumbass ideological bullshit, amirite?

So, yeah. Football stadium DBFOM P3: sign me up. And you know what? Deloitte agrees with me.

It was city hall that decided, no, no, we’ll use a P3 to design and build it, but we’ll forego all the efficiencies and innovation that comes with a private sector manager because we have synchronicities with Regina Exhibition Association Ltd. and, with them in our corner, we can run this thing on our own.

They went rogue, basically, and ignored their consultant’s advice. Deloitte even said they felt our calculations were exceedingly optimistic and washed their hands of the whole mad scheme. (I still don’t get why this all went down.)

And in the end, we’re going to have total control over our football stadium. For all time!

Keen.

But if the No side wins tomorrow, we aren’t going to have total control over our wastewater treatment plant for the next 30 years. And that’s what this referendum is all about for me. Control.

I think council has been successful in making the debate about money by plastering that $58.5 million figure over every flat surface in the city. And congratulations to them for that. They diverted everyone’s attention away from what I pointed out in that infographic yesterday: $58.5 million looks way less important when you put it in the context of the whole project. And while that money covers a quarter of the construction cost, the construction represents only the first three years.

Our wastewater plant will be run by a private Sewage Consortium for ten times that long.

But what could possibly go wrong over 30 years?

Well, that’s the thing. We don’t know.

With a stadium, you can pretty much guess what will happen with ticket sales based on historical data. And as long as the CFL stays in business, I think we can safely say we’ll fill the stands often enough that it won’t seem like a completely wasted facility. So, like I said, hand the thing off for 30 years. I don’t care.

But wastewater… I’m not sure we should be so confident that things will carry on, business-as-usual for the next generation and a half. And that could end up costing us a lot of money.

How’s that, you ask?

Well, according to a water/wastewater study prepared by PPP Canada — that’s the group who’re pimping P3s across the country — most P3 deals that concern wastewater will have guidelines about the quantity and quality of water — ahem, sorry, sewage that flows into the plant.

…the design of a wastewater treatment process requires the nature of the influent to be understood, and limits to be placed on the range of influent quality that the process is expected to be able to handle. This range is often referred to as an influent quality “window”. The window should reflect all reasonably anticipated conditions, including seasonal variations and historically observed influent quality.

As long as the quality and quantity of the “sewage” remains within the window, it’s all on the Sewage Consortium’s head to make sure that it’s treated and disposed of properly. But what if something about the sewage changes to be outside of the window?

If the influent water quality moves outside of the window (either temporarily or permanently), any incremental cost associated with treating the water is the sponsors’ responsibility.

And by “sponsor,” they mean “city.”

Now, I’m one of these crazy people who believes in this thing called human-caused global warming. And as such, I’m looking at our water sources and thinking, yeesh, historical data may not be the thing on which we should be basing our expectations. Not over 30 years, anyway. For the next 10 or 15 years, sure, maybe we’ll be fine. But beyond that? Anything could happen to our water.

And if the worst — or even next-to-the-worst — anything happens to our water, we could wind up on the hook for it and the private sector gets to back away, no harm, no foul.

So there’s that. Which isn’t to say, this is how the P3 is going to break us, climate change will be our undoing. I mean, climate change will be. But as for the P3, my point is we don’t know what’s coming up over the next 30 years except that the environment is changing — everything is changing — and I’d feel much more comfortable if democratically elected institutions were in direct control of our environmental facilities so that we can have the most say about how they’re managed.

Related to this, there was this sidebar I wrote for last issue’s “P3 or Not P3? These Are The Questions” piece but it didn’t make it into the paper. It’s about another possible future cost that we might be baking into this P3 project. Here’s that…

All the experts on P3s warn that one of the ways that the costs to the city can snowball out of control is if we start changing the specifications of the project after the deal is in place. The cost associated with changing the plan is one of the risks that the city will retain.

Deputy city manager Brent Sjoberg concurs, “Once the performance specifications are set out the city retains the risk of changing it. So it doesn’t say you can’t change it but it says if you do, the risk is you’re going to have to pay for that. The private sector won’t simply absorb those costs of changing expectations.”

Good to know. Except that it looks like we’re baking the need for a change right into the project from the outset.

Among the specifications the city has presently laid out for the wastewater plant upgrade are that it “will be able to meet the needs of a population of 258,000.” That’s straight out of the staff report passed in February.

But a September 9 report to council about annexing land from the Rural Municipality of Sherwood states, “To support Design Regina, Hemson Consulting Ltd. provided population, housing and employment forecasts and an associated land needs analysis to 2041. Hemson forecasts the city population to reach 300,000 by approximately the year 2038 or roughly 25 years from today.”

You may have noticed that 300,000 is larger than 258,000. And that means, if Hemson Consulting’s projection is correct, we’ll surpass our wastewater treatment plant’s capacity five or more years before our contract with the Sewage Consortium expires. And that means we’ll be changing the specifications of the project and have to eat whatever costs that entails.

Now, there’s still plenty of time to update that specification before the deal goes through. But one of the things raised at council is that Hemson’s projection is considered by many too be very conservative and that means we could see our population rise much more quickly. Knowing that, we can at least set up a P3 that takes that into consideration. But it just goes to show how such a long term contract can be very fragile. And when it breaks down, the City of Regina has to pay to set things right.

You see what I mean? It isn’t the deal that’s on the table that we have to watch out for. It’s how the context can change in hard-to-foresee ways over the next three decades that worries me. And I’m sure there are plenty more possible problems that I haven’t written about above.

But I can’t write about unanticipated problems. They wouldn’t be unanticipated if I could anticipate them.

So anyway, that’s it in a nutshell. I’m voting Yes because I’m too much of a control freak where our sewage is concerned and by going with a Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain P3² we’re locking ourselves into a 30-year relationship with a Sewage Consortium. And that will limit our control over our wastewater. We’ll control the water rates, sure. We’ll oversee the quality of effluent that comes out of the plant. We’ll probably even get to decide on the font used on the sign outside the building. But the technology, the staffing, the chemicals — all the important stuff that happens in a wastewater plant, that’ll all be under the control of the Sewage Consortium.

And that makes me nervous.

Maybe that’s my problem but considering that our effluent winds up as drinking water for everybody downstream from Regina, I think the polite thing to do is to make sure that I’m 100 per cent confident that my poop remains in my hands.

Wait… that came out wrong…

__________________________________
FOOTNOTE
¹ “You have a business degree?” It’s true. From the University of Alberta, no less. But I’m not pulling some kind of academic rank by mentioning it. My take-away from that degree was that Academy Pizza in HUB Mall starts serving beer at 10 o’clock in the morning.

² For the record, personally, if this was about a P3 that would just build this wastewater plant, I’d be totally okay with that. In fact, I think the stadium and wastewater plant procurement deals are totally backwards. It would be fine with me if we went with a 30-year DBFOM P3 for the stadium and had a Design-Build P3 for the wastewater plant. Actually, my preferred option was the CMAR-DB option that Deloitte considered — that’s a Construction Manager At Risk twinned with a Design-Build P3. It would have gotten us all the spiffy risk transfer on the plant construction that we’re after while giving us total control over maintenance and operations. We’d have had to give up the $58.5 million in federal funding but I think that’s a small price to pay to avoid giving away control of the plant for 30 years.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5’10” tall and he was born in a place. He’s not there now. He’s sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It’s “Girl From Ipanema”, thanks for asking.

You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

31 thoughts on “Why I’m Voting The Way I’m Voting”

  1. You took the words out of my mouth, fleshed them with in-depth research and considered insight, and articulated them in a coherent and compelling fashion. Apart from that, it’s pretty much the way I would have put it.

    Thanks Paul for your diligent work on this brief.

  2. Nice analysis, Paul. I think that your conclusion that climate change will be our undoing is just about dead on. Importantly, that means we will need to build resiliency into everything that we do from this point forward. And I think that this is a crucial point. If a waste-water plan is not able to withstand significant changes due to the effects of climate change or population density then it is just about insane to commit to it for 30 years, even if the federal government wants to support it. Especially, mayhaps, if our most anti-science federal government wants to support it. Like you I don’t whole-scale dismiss P3’s. In fact I think that they have a place in many areas of the economy. But critical infrastructure may not be one of them. We should think more than twice about the ways that things could change in the future.

  3. Paul you are correct that the $58.5 million was an effective deception by the city’s political strategists. Indeed citizens will likely pay several hundred million extra as corporate profits, making the $58.5 million seem like a hollow joke after a few years.

    You are also right about giving up control on a 30 year secret deal. Look at how Hamilton, Nice, London, and other cities were burned by their P3’s. And most recently Berlin’s citizens were forced to pony up almost $2 billion dollars to buy out their P3 water deal early after they found they were being ripped off.

    Sadly all these examples and facts were given to council, so if this happens to Regina it’s not because they weren’t warned – it’s because councilors willfully ignored the risks and sold us out.

  4. A bit off topic … or maybe not … I was surprised to hear John Hopkins of that union he represents called the Regina Chamber of Commerce speak causal like on the Gormley radio program and like it was no big deal that the City Plaza is a whooping 83% cost over-run. He then blames it on a PUBLIC project.

    Just incredible, he is an embarrassment to this city. This is hard earned taxpayers money that was spent by city hall like a bunch of drunken sailors and it’s no big deal?

    Fiacco and his gang rammed this down everyone’s throat and it was “PRIVATE COMPANIES” that build it all. Seriously, bricks from Germany!

    The citizens had no say in the matter.

    Thanks for that bit of information John, now I’m sure it will come back to haunt the mayor and his gang and let’s not forget city administration.

    People of Regina, after hearing this you still want to trust Fougere and his buddie$?

    Put a stop to this … vote YES on September 25th, send a message to city hall that we are sick and tired of all their bull.

    Councillor Fraser, step up to the plate here … many are disappointed in you, you have an opportunity to change that.

  5. Why single out Councillor Fraser? Just because he represents Cathedral? Surely every ward has skin in this game; go after other councillors, if you go after one.

  6. Barb—possibly because Fraser is the only fresh face on council, rather than his area he represents. The rest of council has a pretty reliable history of glad-handing for the mayor’s orifice. I mean office. OFFICE. Mayor’s office.

  7. I see good in Councillor Fraser, I’m trying to get him to bring it out.
    No need to mention the others, it’s just not worth it.
    This P3 is bad for Regina.
    It’s been public for decades w/o a problem, why re-invent the wheel – Vote YES.

  8. I think it’s more accurate to say Fraser is a disappointment.

    He didn’t have to go along with the other real estate and business owners that run the city.

    He knows the terms of the secret 30 year deal. He could have been a hero and shared them with the people.

    He also didn’t need to vote to spend $350,000 on things like that disreputable political robocall company, or the unethical assignment of city administrative staff to full-time duties as political operatives.

    Then when the city broadcast fake town hall meetings, or when they sent out voter cards covered with propaganda, he could have said or done something.

    He could have registered a protest when the main person behind the petition scandal was being installed as the official returning officer. But he did nothing.

    At each of these unethical stages, he could have spoken up to turn the public eye to these shameful acts. But he was silent.

    Seeing councilors like Hincks, Murray, Bryce, and Odonnell pull robo call and back office tricks is no surprise. With them you already know they’re twirling their mustaches while they scratch the chamber of commerce’s back and vice versa.

    Same with councilors Young and Hawkins. They clearly telegraphed their anti-citizen pro-corporation agendas when they ran for election, so we can’t be shocked that they are stomping on the citizens now.

    Findura, Flegel and Burnett are wild cards who occasionally find the acorn.

    But we had higher hopes for Fraser.

    To West58: you can’t “bring out” the good or courage in someone. They alone make the decision if and when they will do good or be brave. Fraser didn’t answer the bell for this round. Maybe next time he will?

  9. Well said, one can only try.

    I have to ask the dues paying members of the Chamber of Commerce, how can you support John Hopkins in voting for a foreign private P3 company coming into Regina and sucking hundreds of MILLIONS of dollars out of Regina taxpayers? Where is the benefit to business and to the Regina citizen?

    As for the Taxpayers Federation, what in God’s name are you thinking coming out and supporting this P3 rape of taxpayers hard earned money?

    City hall has shown thru out this whole process that they will do anything (under handed tactics, lieing, mis-leading information and confusion) to win a no vote. City councillors bullying citizens, calling them liars if they don’t agree. We’ve all been witness to how these elected servants have conducted themselves within our community. I know some will not agree, but to bad, the evidence is clearly there, no denying it.

    We have many good, smart hard working people in this city that will see thru all the bull that came out of city hall during this process. This is a major embarassment and a slap in the face upon every citizen in this city.

    Regina do the right thing – VOTE YES.

  10. Paul: thanks for the link.

    I wonder if Reader and West58 took the trouble to contact Councillor Fraser and other councillors to express their views. I hope so.

  11. @Barb Saylor … I have contacted Councillors by e-mail and Framer’s Market … I got the same skipping record announcement … vote no to losing 58 million.

    I asked why they are in favour and so eager to see hundreds of MILLIONS of dollars leave the city to some off shore account. Hawkins told me I didn’t know what I was talking about and said I don’t have your vote anyway and walked away as did Flegel.

    … these are our so called representatives, they themselves can’t answer the important questions.

    Fraser voted to go P3 I think that says a lot.

  12. west 58…As for the Taxpayers Federation, what in God’s name are you thinking coming out and supporting this P3 rape of taxpayers hard earned money?

    are you kidding. you weren’t under the impression that the Taxpayers Federation actually represent taxpayers were you? They never have. They are funded by the right wing ‘think tanks’. Their purpose- to legitimize the agenda of the right wing by disguising their issues as those of the average taxpayer.

  13. Paul, the Federal government announced that they wouldn’t participate in a P3 with respect to the stadium. They decided for the City of Regina. You lost this particular reader when you weren’t able to get your facts straight….

    ….par for the course for the YES side. ;)

  14. Chris: But the stadium IS a P3.

    And the Deloitte report on the stadium argued that a DBFOM P3 for it was the best value for money but the city opted for a DBF P3 despite Deloitte saying it was a bad idea — actually it was worse, Deloitte rejected the city’s calculations.

    Regardless, federal money was never part of that discussion.

    You’re a stadium deal or two back, man. Try and keep up. ;)

  15. The Taxpayer federal endorsement was bizarre but predictable. As rusty points out the deceptively-named Taxpayer’s Federation is actually a mouthpiece for corporations.

    But it’s totally opposite of their claim for “lower taxes, less waste and accountable government.” Then again, that’s Colin Craig for you.

    It does set up the strange conflict where one foreign corporation will be milking local businesses through high water bills. I would have thought Craig would want to advocate on behalf of the Canadian businesses, not the foreign one?

  16. Something doesn’t add up. Did civil servant Deb McEwen just arbitrarily decide to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars without council’s permission or awareness?

    If so, that’s an even bigger scandal. One public official whose main duty is to stay impartial goes and misappropriates hundreds of thousands of dollars and gives it to disreputable political spin companies? Did she drug Fougere into voicing the false robocalls and those phony town hall recordings?

    Did council really not know? Is the article false or is Fraser bending the truth? Did the other council members do this behind Fraser’s back? Did he miss the meeting? Do the meeting minutes show what he said or how he voted?

    With many questions still unanswered I think this scandal is not over.

  17. Holy smokes, even with all the City’s cheating the current tally is:

    3519 YES
    3501 NO

    Of course the city clerk still has to cast her 2,000 ballots at the end :-)

  18. It’s no scandal at all Reader? A small majority of Regina voters decided to go with P3 option.
    Now will the Regina Water Watch respect the results and move along?

  19. Hi Paul,

    I’ve enjoyed your online posts for the Prairie Dog and I want to thank you for opening my eyes to these “shenanigans.”

    Your article peaked my interest in municipal politics and after some casual research exploring the history of the City Council and the P3 decision, I have a question you may have the answer to.

    Do you know why Michael Fougere resigned as President of the Saskatchewan Construction Association after becoming Mayor of Regina, but did not resign when he was a councillor? It is my understanding that the previous City Council had meetings and votes regarding the stadium project and the P3 proposal prior to Fougere becoming mayor, and if this is the case, then would this mean that Fougere contravened the Cities Act, as it pertains to pecuniary interest; and if so, wouldn’t this be cause for his disqualification? I’m new to municipal politics and admit that I’ve probably misunderstood things. It just seems strange to me that he’d resign as President of the SCA after becoming Mayor but not as a Councillor. Perhaps he resigned for other reasons not related to pecuniary interest. Has this matter already been addressed? Forgive me if it has.

  20. On numerous votes, then-Councillor Fougere declared a conflict of interest and removed himself from the debate and the vote. It would be extremely tough to do this as Mayor, so I’d guess that resignation would be the best thing to do.

  21. Just as a point of clarification, Councillor Fraser did, in fact, vote to support the spending of the $340,000 to support the Vote No campaign. He may not have realized he did when he voted in favour of the P3, but as per the email below from Mr. Jim Nicol, that is indeed what the vote in February 2013 included. I have informed Mr. Fraser of this, but he is refusing to believe that is what he endorsed. I guess this is another issue that needs to be taken up with senior City administration.

    Good afternoon. Your inquiry respecting a couple of outstanding questions was forwarded to my attention.

    With respect to the Referendum Campaign Budget, the estimated amount of $340,000 is included in the global budget for the waste water treatment plant.

    The estimated communication budget respecting the logistics of the referendum campaign (i.e., voter information, polling locations, etc.) is approximately $120,000. As this expenditure was not previously considered by Council, it received formal approval by Council on August 14, 2013.

    Any results from polling conducted by the City of Regina during the referendum campaign period will not be released until after September 25th. The reasons behind this decision are outlined in an article that appeared in the Leader-Post edition of Wednesday, September 4th.

    Jim Nicol
    Executive Director
    Governance & Strategy
    City of Regina
    P: 306.777.7609
    F: 306.949-7210
    E-mail: [email protected]
    Regina.ca

  22. Oh and Newbie – I’ve got that exact question on a recorded meeting with Mayor Fougere. Long story short – his explanation is that he resigned as President of SCA not because of potential conflict of interest (in his words – DON’T GO THERE), but because it would have taken up too much of his time to do both jobs. Apparently it was, in his mind, just a convenience issue, and not one of ethics. We all know the Mayor and most of Council don’t understand the first thing about ethics, especially after this boondoggle.

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