Fixing up a temporary home for the Senate has gone over budget by at least $29 million, and Public Works wants to squeeze office-relocation costs for senators to make up the difference.
But senators are pushing back.
The Senate chamber is being moved to Ottawa's old railway station starting in 2018, when the Centre Block of Parliament Hill — the Senate's current location — is slated for a major renovation that will take a decade or more.
Public Works had budgeted $190 million to renovate the 1912 heritage structure that sits alongside the Rideau Canal, and to fix it up as a temporary Senate chamber for at least a decade.
But over the last few months, engineers and architects have more closely inspected the roof, walls, columns and floors and have found a crumbling heritage structure in far worse shape than they thought.
Floors, columns crumbling
"After beginning demolition work … it became evident that the deteriorated state of the building and the degree of structural upgrades required to meet modern building seismic codes were higher than anticipated," said Public Works spokesman Pierre-Alain Bujold.
"Additional work now required includes removing and reinforcing existing floor slabs, reinforcing beams and columns throughout the building."
There's also advanced corrosion of the cast-iron-framed windows throughout the building. The coffered plaster ceilings in the grand hall and concourse have significant structural problems. The building, converted to a government conference centre after the railways left in 1966, has not been upgraded since the 1970s.
'There was pushback from the Senate.'—Michel Patrice, Senate law clerk
Public Works estimates rehabilitation now will cost $219 million — and says it is trying to stay on budget by cutting back on the $80 million earmarked to relocate and fit up offices for 27 senators displaced by the Centre Block renovations. Those relocation costs also include extra space for postal services, security, a loading dock and more.
The department wants the Senate to accept new offices farther away from the temporary Senate chamber than first agreed, in downtown Ottawa, which an internal document says could save $24.5 million over 13 years.
"[Public Works] has sought approval from the Senate to expand the geographical boundaries … thereby increasing the possibilities of finding suitable accommodation, reducing leasing costs and increasing leasing options," says a Jan. 30 briefing note for the minister, Diane Finley.
But "there was a pushback from the Senate," says Michel Patrice, law clerk of the Senate, who is in charge of the relocation file for the Red Chamber.
Resists proposed office location
Patrice says the Senate would prefer offices in the Central Chambers Building on Elgin Street, close to the new Senate home, and where there are already some Senate administrative offices. He adds that having Senate offices farther from the temporary home introduces security concerns, heightened in light of the Oct. 22 shootings at the National War Memorial and on Parliament Hill.
The issue so far is unresolved, and the Senate — already vilified for expense scandals of its members — does not want to be cast as the heedless spender of public money in its dispute with Public Works.
"We've told Public Works all along, give us the most cost-effective solution that we have before us," says Senator Leo Housakos, recently named Speaker of the Senate.
Housakos says Public Works has been overestimating the cost of fitting up offices closer to the refurbished railway stations, and says the department must review its numbers again before trying to push some senators away from their new home.
There has been no agreement yet. Meanwhile, Public Works says the unexpected problems discovered in the old railway station have not changed the scheduled 2018 completion date for the rehabilitation.
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