New Brunswick

Saint John says it won't know water system costs until project is done

The City of Saint John will not provide an update on how much its long-awaited "safe, clean drinking water" system will cost.

$216M public-private partnership agreement may not reflect final cost

57 communities in Canada remain under drinking water advisories. (CBC)

The City of Saint John will not provide an update on how much its long-awaited "safe, clean drinking water" system will cost.

A CBC news right-to-information request reveals that the figure isn't publicly available.

The request resulted in 2,100 pages of documents about the project, with most records of price blacked out.

The last available discussion of cost appears to date from February 2016, when the matter was discussed at city council.

All levels contribute

A city report put the bill at $216 million, with the federal and provincial governments picking up half and the city and ratepayers handing over the remainder.

The agreement, a public-private partnership, will see a consortium of private companies under the umbrella Port City Water Partners, build and operate the city's water treatment system for 30 years.

Officially known as the Safe Clean Drinking Water Project, it will upgrade the city's aging treatment system to meet new federal water quality guidelines.

"When governments spend public money, all of the information relative to that expenditure should be made public," said Paul Groody, a former city water commissioner, who has spoken against using a public-private partnership to build and operate the city's water system.

Suspects hidden costs

Groody believes there are hidden costs to the system that aren't accounted for in the publicly available documents. He suggested legal and consulting costs are being carried entirely by city taxpayers.

"It's been difficult to figure out what all the costs of this particular project have been," he said.

Saint John Mayor Don Darling referred a CBC inquiry about the cost of the water system to city water commissioner Brent McGovern, who has not yet responded. (CBC)
"Given costs are not finalized until after the Financial Close, the Financial Agreement with P3 Canada will be provided at a later date," said the report prepared for the February 2016 meeting.

Saint John Mayor Don Darling referred a CBC inquiry to city water commissioner Brent McGovern, who has not yet responded.

Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary, who sits on the Saint John Water Commission, said the final costs for the water project could change depending on challenges faced during construction.

"To get an exact dollar figure on what this whole project's going to be, the city won't know that until the completion of it," said McAlary.

Bid was less than estimate

The February 2016 report said the $216 million bid price was $40 million less than the estimate of $256.8 million as laid out in the city's business case in March 2013.

It's not clear if that difference is accounted for by the decision to switch to a well field as the source for drinking water for west Saint John consumers.

The final cost for the west side system was not supplied in response to the CBC request, even though the new water system there has been completed and was brought online in September 2017.

An estimate provided to city councillors in October 2013 said a west Saint John well water system could save the city $50 to $60 million "dependent upon the quality of the water" plus another $5 million in reduced pumping costs.


Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726


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