P3 – What’s really going on?

Participating in the all candidates meeting and listening to all of the incumbents, with one notable exception, toe the party line about the desperate need for more water right NOW citing the report. THE REPORT. They did not cite any facts or figures, they just cited the report.

I have no doubt that the City of Abbotsford has purchased an excellent rep[ort to support its desired course of action. And before staff, mayor, council or chamber begin throwing Deloitte & Touche around as the preparers of the report let me respond with Arthur Anderson. Arthur Anderson who was once one of the ‘big five’ accounting firms with PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young and KPMG providing auditing, tax, and consulting services. Arthur Anderson that no longer exists because it provided a client what they wanted in exchange for the extremely large fees the client was paying.

There were several items contained in the report in fine print that the counselors willfully have chosen to ignore because these items were counter to what they want to hear. When the effect these fine print points would have on the cost of a P3 were raised and questioned at the all candidates meeting every Council incumbent chose not to respond, ignoring the fact the fine print in the report would significantly increase the cost of the P3.

In other words, council used the parts of the report that supported its desire to use a P3 and ignored the parts of the report that would negatively affect council’s desire to use a P3.

The one noticeable exception to united front presented by council, the united citing of THE report and the desperate need for water NOW, was Patricia Ross.

I felt sympathy for Ms. Ross as the other candidates piled onto Ms. Ross because she sits on the Abbotsford/Mission joint sewer and water commission which had unanimously recommended looking further into using a P3 to upgrade the water supply.

To the jabs her fellow counselors were throwing at her, seemingly for daring to not toe the party line on the P3, Ms. Ross made the most intelligent comment about the P3 I heard from any of the incumbents over the course of the entire evening.

Ms. Ross stated that she had voted to proceed with an examination of using a P3 to upgrade the water supply, but that the more she had learned about P3s the more she felt that a P3 was NOT the way to proceed in upgrading the water supply.

That rather than following mayor, council and staff off a cliff like a lemming Ms. Ross, actually paid attention and took the time to think about and look into P3s. Discovering what anyone who takes the time to look into and think about P3s does….

……reports that explains why P3s are so much more expensive than other ways, particularly well managed public projects, of accomplishing projects. You also find the experiences others around the world have had with using P3s for their water systems. There is analysis available that clearly shows that the idea the private sector is more cost effective and efficient at constructing and bringing online capital projects than the public sector is a myth; that the private sector can be as bad, or worse, than the public sector at constructing capital projects; that P3s can be less efficient, and cost effective than even poorly managed public projects; and that a well-managed public project is always more efficient and cost-effective than any other method for constructing and bringing online capital projects.

I was against using a P3 from the very beginning. Having spent 25 years as a Chartered Accountant I have the financial experience and experience negotiating contracts to know/calculate/understand a P3 is the most costly option and that the nature of a P3 has the private partner maximizing the amount charged and minimizing what is delivered to meet the contract. You pay the most and get the least.

Reading the article addressing the P3 question with the economics PhD from the University of the Fraser Valley I was left with the impression that he went out of his way, had to go out of his way, and was being be very, very careful not to say that the P3 was a bad choice to upgrade Abbotsford’s water.

My background did let me understand the major point the economics professor made about the reality that because the contract is negotiated using words to set out the work to be accomplished rather than precise plans, once the design is produced reality (the difference between the design/plans drawn up on the basis of word versus the actual physical needs to upgrade Abbotsford’s supply) exerts itself. In order to bring the proposed design up to snuff (to meet the actual needs of the task rather than meeting the task set out by the words describing the task) the contract will require add-ons. Which is how a negotiated ‘guaranteed’ contract price easily soars from $291 million to half a billion dollars.

Listening to John Smith speak about how the price would not go up and how many contingencies (35%) had been built into their estimated price caused a flashback that had my blood running cold. Mr. Smith and fellow councilors had used almost exactly the same words about Plan A and we all know how that ‘guaranteed’ contract price worked out – it doubled. Listening to John Smith talk about contingencies and how the price would probably be less than the estimate of $291 million, told those who have followed this mayor and council’s actions and gaffes that Abbotsford will be in serious trouble if the P3 is not voted down with loud NO.

As I say I was against the P3 because I understood the financial realities of a P3.

One of the abilities I seek to bring to council is listening to what others are saying well enough to actually hear and understand the point or points they are making.

We have a retired city engineer telling us we are nowhere near running out of water on the time schedule the city is screaming ‘the sky is falling’ about, that in fact Abbotsford has enough water to last into the next decade; we had Henry Braun drawing attention to the fact that peak water usage has declined 33%; others have spoken about conservation – which mayor, council and staff blow off saying “conservation isn’t capable of being the whole answer” – making a significant contribution to our overall water supply situation; that I have heard from the contracting sector of Abbotsford’s business community about this not being necessary, that there are things we could do that would be far cheaper to increase peak capacity,

One of the advantages of water, as opposed to electricity, is that it is easy to store. You can process your water overnight pump it into reservoirs and if your peak demand exceeds your processing capacity you simply draw down your reservoir levels. I grew up in southern Ontario where all the towns had water towers which allowed them not to have to build water processing systems that could meet peak demand. Overnight, the towns would fill the water towers, and during the day any demand above the system’s capacity to process water was met by drawing down the water levels in the reservoirs a.k.a. the water towers.

No matter what assurances Abbotsford’s mayor, council, staff and the federal government make – their behavior has demonstrated their lack of trustworthiness on issues they have a vested interest in. Now I cannot say who is right Water Watch or our politicians on the question of water exports. What I can say is that Canadians will only know the answer when the question is decided by the Supreme Court of Canada and that if Water Watch was proven correct it is too late to do anything about it. I believe that on matters of this importance the only course of intelligent action is to not run any risk by the simple expedient of not going down that possibly disastrous path without compelling reasons. Especially in light of the reality that the cost and nature of a P3 provide compelling reasons not to use a P3 for the upgrade.

Mr. Lowen and others went on about how we had almost lost the Norrish Creek water source in 2003, a fact that was also cited by the Chamber of Commerce in support of the incumbent mayor, council and the continuation of business as usual at Abbotsford City Hall.

If an alternate water source, is that important why have they been unconcerned about providing an alternative water supply until now? If an alternate water source, is that important, why did council assure the citizens of Abbotsford during their plan A hard sell sales campaign that there was no need to address the water infrastructure?

Why was it that when council didn’t want to do anything about the water infrastructure our water supply was fine with no concern about needing a second source; yet now that council is desperately seeking to sell the P3 to voters suddenly there is a great concern about and need for a second water source?

What has happened between plan A (a point in time, much closer to the 2003 near loss of Norrish Creek) and now that suddenly, a second source of water is a desperate necessity. What had happened since our last municipal election in 2008 that has suddenly turned a second source of water into a desperate necessity?

Why is it that after eight years of no further interruptions to our Norrish Creek water supply suddenly we’re supposed to be panicking about needing a second source of water?

If there was a real concern about a second source, why have we not heard about this need before? If there was a real concern about a second water source why did mayor, council and staff build plan A?

It is typical behavior for our incumbent council to be suddenly concerned with the need for a second source as an additional threat and/or reason to panic and rush headlong into the P3 Council wants to enter into.

The question that the contracting sector posed to me about the P3 proposal was what’s going on here? To these professionals the P3 proposal makes no sense. The one point they feel sure of is that the cost is likely to skyrocket.

Exactly what is going on at City Hall? The evidence is clear we are not going to run out of water in 2016, that we have water enough to run into the next decade. There are numerous ways that would allow us to not have to spend that kind of money we’re talking about. There are things we can do so we do not have to spend that kind of money.

All of which raises the question “What is really going on with the P3?”

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