The new Fawcett Fire Hall has been beleaguered with problems from its design to the tendering phase, the province’s municipal inspection report says.
Strategic Steps Inc., the firm Municipal Affairs hired to put together the report, found several irregularities with the project, starting with Westlock County using engineering designs from Athabasca County’s Baptiste Lake Fire Hall without permission, not following the appropriate tendering process and accepting the contract before setting aside funding.
“I just want to note that with the new administration team that took over, these issues were quickly resolved,” said inspector Ted Gillespie. “We’ve witnessed the communication between departments has increased significantly so hopefully some of these failures will not happen in the future.”
The report recommended the county seek professional advice to establish procedures for handling RFPs and funding to guarantee legal compliance that also meets professional standards.
In 2015, former-CAO Peter Kelly and several councillors visited the Baptiste Lake Fire Hall and based on what they saw, the report said staff was asked to prepare a Request for Proposal (RFP) to build a similar hall in Fawcett.
Inspectors said it appeared the Baptiste Lake Fire Hall design drawings were being used to avoid hiring an engineer or architect to design one for Fawcett.
“These drawings were protected by copyright and they’re obviously prepared for a different site, so it may not have been structurally or operationally appropriate,” Gillespie said.
The design, which included 465 square feet for a washroom, a small office and kitchen counter, was sent out as an RFP to three firms Nov. 11, 2015. Only one bid was received when the tender closed about a month later — E&D Kuzyk Konstruction submitted a $498,300 bid. Inspectors were also unclear if the RFP advertisement complied with provincial trade agreements or whether other contractors were made aware.
The report also found that after the tender went to E&D Kuzyk Konstruction, Kelly gave copies of the Baptiste Lake drawings to Pembina Construction and NCV Industrial in February 2016.
Kelly then asked the two contractors to send an RFP for the fire hall. NCV replied in March with three quotes between $1.42 million and $1.89 million.
A few weeks after NCV replied, Kelly advised staff to e-mail Rocky Mountain Engineering Inc., the firm that owned the Baptiste Lake designs, for permission to use them.
County staff told inspectors they felt embarrassed sending the e-mail because the reply would “obviously be ‘no.’” Rocky Mountain Engineering Inc. denied the request.
“The design for structural components is site specific and requires new engineering for every building,” the firm said in response. “The reasons for this include but are not limited to wind loads, snow loads and soil characteristics.”
Gillespie said eventually this caught the attention of the Alberta Association of Architects (AAA) and the Consulting Architects of Alberta.
“Both expressed concerns about the format of the RFP, pointed out irregularities and offered assistance to achieve compliance,” he said. “Inspectors heard the lack of response from the county and unwillingness to co-operate resulted in unnecessary escalation of the compliance issues.”
In July 2016, AAA sent a letter asking the county to explain how they planned to fix the issue. Two days later, Consulting Architects of Alberta listed 17 concerns and offered to help address them.
After repeated e-mails from AAA, its director of practice told inspectors he became extremely frustrated with the county’s lack of co-operation and no response for over a month.
Current county staff informed inspectors that management repeatedly reminded them to ignore letters from the two engineering associations and “not to worry.”
The report said the county eventually replied with a short, one sentence e-mail stating that it was the county’s understanding that the building didn’t need an architect because it was less than 500 square feet. The AAA responded that a fire hall is not exempt under the 2014 Alberta Building Code regardless of size.
Eventually the conflict escalated to the point where the AAA warned all members to decline any RFP for the Fawcett Fire Hall.
Regardless of whether the building legally required an architect, the report found the lack of communication and co-operation with the AAA to be “an unprofessional and improper matter.”
When council learned about this in April 2016, councillors looked at three options to either send out a new RFP, sole source the contract to E&D Kuzyk Konstruction and Rocky Mountain, or honour the quote from November.
Following that, council tabled a decision until they had more information. Eventually, the county’s legal advice said a sole-source contract would violate trade law. Instead, council decided to go with a new RFP. However, inspectors found the quote lacked details, like the height of the truck bays and door dimensions, and whether the building should be heated or enclosed.
“One would assume the county would rate the proposals based on the designs that were submitted,” Gillespie said. “However, the decision matrix that was included in the proposal was heavily weighted on price and contractor experience, but had almost no ability to rate the design based on the features provided in the design.”
Fire Hall funding
The final irregular matter occurred when the county awarded the tender and set the price for the project four months before it legally had the money.
The county had originally budgeted $425,000 for the fire hall, but proposals from the new RFP all came in over budget, ranging from $513,000-$971,000.
E&D Kuzyk Konstruction was rated the highest and again came in with the lowest bid at $513,000, which the county accepted last September.
Most of the county’s money to pay for the fire hall was to come from a $470,000 debenture and $80,000 from the fire hall’s reserve.
Inspectors said the debenture needed to be made official through a borrowing bylaw, but council didn’t pass that until this January, after it accepted the bid — construction on the hall started this spring.
The report said this put the county at financial risk if the bylaw hadn’t passed, cornering them into finding another source of money or facing the legal consequences of cancelling the project.
“This ‘put cart before the horse’ in a sense where council approved a binding contractual obligation to construct the fire hall and approved a borrowing bylaw four months later,” the report said.
Inspectors also heard from other county fire departments with concerns that emergency equipment and apparatuses were being housed outside or were poorly located for quick access in an emergency.
The report added that county fire departments had much more support under new county management with respect to equipment maintenance. For example, when a critical fire apparatus needed repairs, it was given top priority at the Public Works shop.