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Russ Powers: "It made the fire department look very, very stupid...." 0:19

Hamilton’s fire department spent nearly a million dollars over its approved budget when it bought its new radio system, and a Dundas councillor says he’s still not happy with the explanation of why.

The fire department’s $23-million trunked radio system went $901,298 over budget, and council didn’t find out about it until the city’s internal auditor red-flagged it in July.

Coun. Russ Powers called the overspending "gross incompetence" and quizzed the city’s fire chief on Tuesday as to how that could happen — not just the overage, but how it remained under wraps for so long. Even after the explanation, he said, he’s still not satisfied.

“I’m pleased that the chief was very candid and accepted responsibility,” Powers said. “I’m disappointed and I expected something more, but we have to move on.”

The plan to replace the city’s old analog communications system has gone on for years. The city approved $23,314,000 for the new system.

'I’m disappointed and I expected something more.'- Councillor Russ Powers

But when city auditor Ann Pekaruk investigated the project in the spring, she found that the department spent $901,298 more than council approved on the project. Most of the money was in taxes for purchasing the system.

Fire Chief Rob Simonds took over as chief about two years ago, in the later stages of the project. He said he didn’t find out about the discrepancy until May. Council found out in July.

That’s unacceptable, said Powers, who wanted to know who had worked on the project and “how many fingers touched the file.”

“I believe this is gross incompetence associated with the people on this particular file,” he said.

Staff and fiscal accountability has been an issue at city hall this year. Earlier this year, a city employee was terminated with cause in connection with more than $1 million that went missing over nine years. Public works employees were also investigated for allegations that included the theft of time and city gravel.

Important to 'catch it in the bud'

These cases highlight why it's important to ask questions, Powers said.

"No matter how minor (the issue) is, if you catch it in the bud, it might not become a major issue. That’s the concern."

The department is dealing with the issue, Simonds said. It’s looked at its policies and spoken to the people involved. He agrees that it was unacceptable, and a mark on what is “otherwise a very good news story for our community.”

“I’m very confident in the future that we’ll never have a situation like this again.”

Under the old system, fire department activities were broadcast on a scanner, and the public and the media could listen. That’s not the case under the new digital system, which was implemented last June.

New system working well otherwise

The upgrade was necessary, Simonds said. The old system pre-dated amalgamation and didn’t provide sufficient coverage for all of the new Hamilton.

The new system also made it easier to communicate with other emergency services and brings Hamilton in line with the industry standard, he said. It was also increasingly difficult to get parts for the old radio system.

The system works well, Simonds said.

“If you look in terms of what the objectives were in upgrading our communication system, we achieved those objectives, albeit not on budget.”

The city still has to pay $1,658,658 on the new system. In the end, it will total $24,215,298.