'Free' money no reason for secrecy in city of Ottawa projects

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Better process needed for spelling out transparency in private-public deals

By Joanne Chianello, CBC News

Surprises are good for birthdays. For spending $1 million of public money to alter public land on a deal negotiated and approved in secret, not so much.

Last week's announcement that the city will hand over $1 million to a private company to build a 50,000 square-foot playground on a beloved waterfront without informing councillors, without consulting the community, with no public details available about the deal — and not even a single pretty picture to woo us — is another display of a lack of transparency at the halls of municipal power.  

Questions, questions

In January, Sinking Ship Entertainment approached the city to build Canada's largest playground at Mooney's Bay for its Giver TV program that airs on TVO. Using children and adult volunteers, the show has built more than 40 playgrounds. Ottawa's — which the company estimates will be worth $2 million — would be a salute to Canada and a 2017 legacy project.

In return, Sinking Ship wanted $1 million in public money, as well as complete secrecy while conducting negotiations, during which the company reportedly changed its mind once or twice about coming to Ottawa.

Because the city money comes from a parkland fund that is meant for city-wide projects, bureaucrats were able to approve the funding without going to council first. That a city manager could spend $1 million on a park without their approval came as a surprise to some city councillors — and likely not a few taxpayers.

There are many unanswered questions over this deal that was hatched in secret in less than five months.

What are the details of the financing? Does the city bear any fiscal responsibility if the project runs out of money part-way through? Who exactly are the other partners and how much are they donating? Giver is trying to crowdfund $150,000 for the project. As of Thursday afternoon, it had raised $770. What happens if it doesn't raise the $150,000?

What were the criteria for the site? Why did Britannia or Andrew Haydon parks not qualify?

What will the long-term costs be of maintaining this new playground, costs that will fall to city taxpayers?

Proposal for new stormwater charge pushed back to September

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Road sign warning of flooded road on Belmont Avenue in Ottawa South on April 15, 2014. PAT MCGRATH

Jon Willing, Ottawa Citizen

Funding a controversial stormwater fee partially through taxes could be one option City of Ottawa staff consider before making a recommendation in September, according to council’s environment chair.

But Coun. David Chernushenko says residents who currently aren’t contributing money to the stormwater program won’t be let off the hook.

“I think the city has been clear from the outset that if you are receiving a service, you need to contribute towards it,” Chernushenko said Tuesday. “What is the fair amount that you’re contributing towards it? That’s the hard part to work out.”

The staff proposal to change the water and sewer rate structure, including a plan to recoup funds for stormwater services, was originally expected to be tabled this month. Results from a series of public consultations convinced staff to come up with more options.

The city plans to release a report on the public consultations in the coming weeks.

Most of the fuss is over the city’s plan to charge about 45,000 landowners who don’t receive a municipal water bill a new fee to pay for stormwater infrastructure, such as storm sewers and ditches. Only water and sewer ratepayers have been contributing to the city’s annual $42-million stormwater budget.

The city came up with two ways on which to base a stormwater fee: property assessments and residential property types. A third option is the same flat fee for everyone.

It’s clear people don’t believe the city has come up with a fair way to charge people for stormwater services, Chernushenko said.

That’s what has prompted the city to brainstorm more options.

Ice build-up at water plant could cost Ottawa city $18.5M

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City could turn to federal and provincial levels of government for help funding the frazil ice fix

By Lucy Scholey, Metro

The City of Ottawa will likely turn to the provincial and federal governments for help funding $19 million to fix a unique ice build-up problem at one of its aging water purification plants.

The 85-year-old Lemieux Island water plant provides half the city’s drinking water, which is sourced from the Ottawa River. Since 2013, the facility has had problems with frazil ice – soft ice formed in turbulent water that can block intake piping. This has resulted in a “significant reduction” in the plant’s drinking water production capacity, according to an environment report.

That, and the frazil ice problem has so far cost the city more than $2 million, including the costs of staff overtime, divers, emergency repair and the installation of a contingency pumping system. Broken down, it has cost up to $700,000 annually.

So city staff are proposing “more drastic measures” to nip the problem for good. A pipe running deep below the ice cover, which will cost $17.2 to $18.5 million, is the costliest solution, but staff say it’s also the most reliable.

“It’s clearly a big number and not something we can budget for in the short-term,” said Coun. David Chernushenko, who chairs the environment committee. Drinking water systems are among the most critical pieces of government infrastructure, so he’s hoping the federal and provincial governments can chip in on the cost. 

Crosswalk coming to Lees Avenue following pedestrian safety concerns

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Coun. David Chernushenko says crossing will be operational in time for the new school year

 
Pedestrians who use this stretch of Lees Avenue are happy the city will install a crosswalk here by September. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

By Waubgeshig Rice, CBC News

Pedestrians feeling overwhelmed by an increase in traffic on Lees Avenue due to LRT construction will get some relief thanks to a new crosswalk, but it won't be up and running until September.

With some OC Transpo buses re-routed to Lees and commuters adjusting to detours and changes in downtown traffic because of construction, Capital ward Coun. David Chernushenko has been hearing from worried residents who live and work on Lees.

"Not only have I heard concerns, I had them myself, even just sort of in theory when we saw what the plans were for a large number of buses mixing in with the ongoing traffic in that area as part of the ongoing changes to routes with the LRT," he said.

Only one set of traffic lights for pedestrians

The stretch of road leading east to the University of Ottawa's Lees Campus has high-rise apartment buildings on either side, but only one set of traffic lights for pedestrians to cross, and that's closer to the campus.

"You wait a long time, and you're scared to cross the street, unless you walk all the way down to the traffic light and then cross over," said Cassandra Beaupre, who visits a friend who lives in one of the buildings regularly.

"The only way I can cross the street is to either go there (the lights), or I cross it while the cars are driving down. So yeah, it's kind of dangerous," said Jack Lau, also visiting a friend.

The solution is putting in a crosswalk to ease those fears, according to Chernushenko. "We've got a lot of people who traditionally cross the street just by looking both ways and walking across. That's not normally a big deal with typical conditions," he said, "But now that we've got large numbers of buses mixed in, and all kinds of detours, a crosswalk and an official crossing is actually called for."

Crosswalk a 'brilliant idea'

Lau calls the plan to install a new crosswalk a "brilliant idea." Work will begin in the summer, and the goal is to have it operational in time for the new school year in September.

"There is a lot of interaction, a lot of different vehicle types, and pedestrians and cyclists are the most vulnerable," said Chernushenko.

"The city hasn't turned a blind eye, but on the other hand to put in a proper crosswalk with all the right markings, signals, etc., takes time to design, tender, and build. It's going forward as quickly as possible."